Review: Bill Callahan/Bonnie Prince Billy – “Blind Date Party”

The song begins with a guitar line wonderfully characteristic of post-rock guru David Grubbs, mellifluous and storied. Then, Will Oldham enters like a specter, his voice steeped in the history of Kentucky volk. “She said she was a maiden/ That wasn’t what I heard/ For the sake of conversation/ I took her at her word,” he sings. Bill Callahan, the bellowing songsmith formerly of Smog, breathes accompanying, punctuating notes – “Huh, huh/ Huh, huh” – before the two sing in a plaintive voice not quite as suggestive as much of the song’s boudoir repertoire: “The night of Santiago/ And I was passing through/ So I took her to the river/ As any man would do.” (This is a family publication. We’ll spare you the details about thighs and breasts.) The song kind of unfurls and reveals itself in layers, with the final chorus, all three men joined in voice and guitar and percussive hand-clapping, positively joyous. This is one of the finer moments on the new Bill Callahan/Bonnie “Prince” Billy LP Blind Date Party and, while it is far from the record’s only fine moment, it remains a kind of outlier, a reminder of the record or the COVID-19 collaboration this could have been.

Leonard Cohen’s R-rated “The Night of Santiago” isn’t the only cover, with Callahan and Oldham – who have collaborated previously as the Sundowners – cherry-picking barrels full of favorites and giving them contemporary reworkings. Some songs rock, some roll; there are hints of synth-pop, gospel and even reggae as the Bills welcome their ensemble cast of Drag City Records characters. This approach, for those in the know, has become a bit of a Drag City staple of sorts. The label cross-pollinated its acts as far back as the 1990s, with Gastr del Sol members showing up on Edith Frost records, David Grubbs backing Oldham on Palace Records/DC affairs, and David Pajo appearing, well, just about everywhere. They also released an interesting but also sorta masturbatory collaborative LP in 2001 under the band name Drag City Supersession and the LP title Tramps, Traitors and Little Devils. This is not new turf to them. But the depth of the roster, yes, is pretty impressive on Blind Date Party.

Matt Sweeney, whose work with Oldham includes Superwolf, backs him and Callahan on a wonderfully dry and deadpan take on Hank Williams Jr.’s “OD’d in Denver.” Sean O’Hagan, he of The High Llamas and Stereolab, appears on an interesting though ultimately misguided cover of Billie Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay.” David Pajo of Slint and Papa M appears. George Xylouris appears. Mick Turner of the Dirty Three appears. Ty Segall appears.

But Blind Date Party, culled together from separate YouTube collaborations occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a concept album through and through, and, at nearly 90 minutes, it’s a tough sell and an eclectic but jumbled listen. This is a record that is not as great as the sum of its parts. Ty Segall tries to work wonders with Johnnie Lee Frierson’s “Miracles,” released online way back in January 2021, but the song ends up feeling more clunky than inspired, like a car with a lot of gimmicky bells and whistles but no engine. Cooper Crain, who worked alongside Oldham in a Bitchin’ Bajas side project, fares better with the reggae-ish take on Iggy Pop’s “I Want to Go to the Beach,” but the Cat Stevens cover that opens the disc, “The Blackness of the Night,” is so hammed up by AZITA that it’s difficult to take the proceedings seriously. Alasdair Roberts flashes colors Americana, complete with fiddle, on the group’s take on Dave Rich’s “I’ve Made Up My Mind.” And Meg Baird shines on Lowell George’s “I’ve Been the One,” with Callahan also pushing to extend his typically bass-rich range and doing a damn emotive job with it. But, elsewhere, Mick Turner appears spotty and Sir Richard Bishop mis-cast. It’s a lot of hit, but a lot of miss, too.

Which leads us to the question of format. In this heightened era of streaming, the idea of start-to-finish LPs seems almost quaint and, listening to the record after hearing material released online as far back as October 2020, much of this feels excessive or, worse yet, a money-generating afterthought. During COVID-19, the deep dives into YouTube have become all the more rewarding due to the artists, stripped of their recording-studio and minor/major label contexts, presenting their material without middle men. That was Bill Callahan and Will Oldham in 2020 and through 2021 – and it was thrilling to hear, if a little touch and go. As 2021 draws to a close and 2022, another year of pandemic living, dawns, we must question why a proper LP of this material is necessary or recommendable. Yeah, it’s an interesting, if flawed, outing – but only recommended to those who already have exhausted these artists’ voluminous personal discographies first. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Jan. 6, 2022

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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.

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