Further Inside The Palace Walls

O, Where Have You Been, Bonnie Prince Billy?

Over the past seven years, Will Oldham has released records under the names Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and Bonnie Prince Billy. Though he pretty much seems to have abandoned that confusing tactic of late in favor of recording under the name his mom gave him, all these various incarnations are in essence solo projects. His ever-rotating cast of collaborators has included his brother Ned, Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein, Pavement's Bob Nastanovich, and Dirty Three's Mick Turner and Jim White — but regardless of name, the constant has remained Oldham's distinctive low-fi mix of indie-rock ethos and Appalachian folkie pathos. Boasting a knack for subverting (some might say perverting) traditional balladry, via a singing voice that sounds like Neil Young with a case of the hiccups, Oldham is as fascinating as he is elusive.

Sequels rarely live up to the promise of the originals, and this follow-up (of sorts) to 1997's odds-and-sods Palace Music collection Lost Blues and Other Songs is no exception. Composed largely of demos, stray B-sides and live versions of previously released songs, Guarapero (Lost Blues 2) seems geared more toward Oldham completists than to the novice. The liner notes don't clarify which tracks come from where, when they were recorded or who played on what, lending the album an off the-cuff feel, and sloppily recorded live versions of "For The Mekons et al" and "Stable Will" are likely to win few new converts. [If you need to start somewhere, try 1995's Viva Last Blues (Palace Music) or 1997's Joya (Will Oldham), probably the tightest, most cohesive albums in Oldham's increasingly sprawling, complicated catalogue.]

Which isn't to say that Guarapero is without merit, even to the casual listener. An irony-free take on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Every Mother's Son" (RealAudio excerpt) re-imagines the Southern rock staple as a plaintive piano ballad, at times sounding more than a little like the Replacements' "Here Comes A Regular." There are several standout originals that showcase Oldham's ability to turn campfire songs into Bukowski-esque tales of despair, such as "Call Me A Liar"

(RealAudio excerpt), an outtake from an aborted album with Steve Albini that finds Oldham accompanied by rousing accordion and flirting with Tom Waits territory. The biggest musical departure is "The Risen Lord," a D. H. Lawrence poem set to synths, while the hymnlike "O Lord Are You In Need?" (RealAudio excerpt) ends the album with a surprising lullaby.

With his reedy, tremulous voice, unpolished musicianship and dark lyrical sensibility, Will Oldham is most assuredly something of an acquired taste. He's too oblique for the alt-country crowd and too earnest in his hillbilly leanings for the alt-rock crowd — all of which makes him that rarest of all beasts in contemporary music: an original.