Review: Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “BPB Mix Tape Vol. 5”

Any musician who’s released 25 studio LPs (did I count that right?) must bear a treasure trove of outtakes and demos, amirite? But Will Oldham always has been more than just prolific, just a man who has, y’know, a lot of songs. Since 1993 – the year he released the epic, Slint-assisted Depression blues of Palace Brothers’ There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, as well as the oddly relevant but oft-cast-aside Sundowners EP – Oldham’s body of work has been about what sits at eye level as much as what can be found by scratching below the surface.

And so we have a mixtape series.

Though not released by Drag City or Oldham’s Palace Records, the series, whose fifth entry is out this week on Bandcamp (how meta), clearly has Oldham’s blessing, as it appears on his official channels. “Curated” by Dennis Loeser from Justin Clark’s apparently plentiful archives, the “tape” runs 90+ minutes and features 22 Oldham gems, most of them pretty damn obscure but all of them oddly representative of the Louisville songwriter’s various phases and best modes.

Take “Ballad of Joe Hill,” a lengthy nugget of folklore about the Swedigh-American labor activist and songsmith. It’s taken from a 2015 live set in Louisville and is direly traditional – it hints at the Joan Baez take on Hill, and is equally reverent – but it also reflects the solo-ist melancholy of this period in Oldham’s career, which hit its zenith last year with the devastatingly engaging Songs of Love and Horror. Even standing on its own, though, it’s a mountainous achievement and, listening, you can’t help but wonder why it hasn’t gotten more play than it does here, buried a few songs deep into a 45-minute-long single “track” on Bandcamp.

The first “side” of the release features live takes on Joya-era wonders – “O Let It Be,” from a set in Denmark on June 29, 2003 is a centerpiece – that call to mind the rousing, even rock-ish energy of Bonnie Prince Billy’s Summer In The Southeast, Oldham’s first live record, released by Drag City circa 2005. (The dramatically under-rated “Idea and Deed” also gets rolled out and Oldham gives a wonderfully muted performance. This take is from The Lava House in Louisville in April 2005.)

The “second” side is equally good, with an engaging “Stablemate,” from a 1999 John Peel session, and a languid “When Thy Song Flows Through Me,” from a VPRO Radio5 DeAvonden session in the Netherlands in 1998. What really steals the show, though, are the three closing songs: “Black Captain,” from the Wolfroy masters (circa 2011), “I Am the Sky,” from Brooklyn’s Rare Book Room in 1998, and a surprisingly grungy “Midnight Rider,” as captured as Palace Brothers in Switzerland in 1994. They are all wonders.

Mixtapes these days can be hit-and-miss affairs. But not for Oldham. Backed by a knowledgeable curator and a wealth of archives, they’re like tapes handed from friend to friend, new ways of discovering an artist you already worship. If that was the goal of this series all along, consider installment number five a success. – Justin Vellucci, MusicTAP, Sept. 25, 2019


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.