Once upon a time there was a tortoise and a prince. The tortoise had just finished a lengthy celebratory tour after his much talked about slow and steady race with the hare, and was frankly ready for something even slower and steadier. The prince, meanwhile, looked out upon his southern kingdom, sad and just a little lonely, hoping for a friend who shared his interests. The prince spent long and humid summer days singing the songs of his past, often inviting friends from his kingdom to sing along, but he longed to hear the music from other lands and combine it with his own. All the while, in the northern lands, the tortoise was doing the same. After all, the tortoise wasn’t interested in races. In point of fact, the tortoise was really just trying to get to the Sonic Youth concert down the road. That damn hare brought humiliation upon himself. To make an overly long and relatively uninteresting story short, the tortoise met the prince and they ended up recording a fine and disparate collection of their favorite songs. The end?
Not quite. This transparent and, frankly, ham-handed fairy tale account of The Brave and the Bold just touches the surface of this unexpected collaboration of cover songs. Chicago based post-rockers Tortoise and the fringe beard-folk artist Bonnie `Prince’ Billy teamed up originally to record a version of one of the album’s standouts, Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” The one song quickly turned into ten and the result is The Brave and the Bold, an album that seems, rather than equal parts of each artist, a blending of talents so intertwined that its original personalities are difficult to isolate. Team-ups with Johnny Cash, Matt Sweeney, Harmony Korine and even, ironically enough, former Tortoise member David Pajo, were all stunning enough in their own rights, but were all heavily under the weighty influence of Mr. Oldham. (Of course, now I’m assuming you all just know the aliases, so here’s the Cliff Notes: Will Oldham, aka Palace, aka Palace Brothers, aka Palace Music, aka Bonnie Billy, aka Bonnie `Prince’ Billy. What? No crazy typographical symbol?) The Brave and the Bold so equally balanced between the collaborators that alternately both and neither are recognizable.
Covering songs ranging from ’70s radio mainstays Elton John and the aforementioned Boss, to the still popular yet cult artists Devo and Richard Thompson, the dissimilar sounds of Brazilian artist Milton Nascimento, fringe Nashville artist Don Williams, and sixties pop songstress Melanie, and finally to a shared love of garage rock with songs by the Minutemen, Lungfish and Quix*o*tic, the tortoise and the prince are all over the map, which goes a long way to explain their own individual sounds. Oldham’s aching voice soars on this record, especially on “Thunder Road,” casting an entirely different shadow on the tale of unbridled youth straining at the leash of suburban confinement. Whereas Springsteen roars with teenage aggression, Oldham and his new pals exude painful longing, as if the lyrics are what they `hope’ happens, not what they `will’ to happen. Melanie’s “Some Say (I Got Devil)” is especially meaningful in the `group’s’ artful hands, not bothering to change the line “I’m just a girl in trouble,” which shows even more of an unabashed vulnerability that the song itself exposes. The creepy vocal mix of “Daniel,” and its deep dark basslines, reinterprets the bittersweet tale of a young Vietnam vet providing it with more weight and fragility, if less pathos. It is probably the one song that sounds the most like Oldham’s solo work. “Love is Love” found me thinking that I was listening to Bernard Sumner in the early days between Joy Division and New Order.
Tortoise’s spacy rhythms are more than just a foil for Billy’s folk leanings. They provide not only a unique backdrop for his vocal style, they combine effortlessly to become something not quite completely Tortoise or Bonnie Billy, but equal parts of both. This is not your typical `covers’ record, unlike Bowie’s tribute to his Merseybeat favorites in Pin-Ups or Elvis Costello’s look at country and western with Almost Blue, but also dissimilar to Nouvelle Vague’s samba portrayals of the ’80s on their self-titled album. Rather than interpret, Tortoise and Oldham reinvent, deconstructing then reconstructing some great songs that would lose some kind of power if compared to their original counterparts. They handle these songs delicately, with reverence and humility, and ultimately, a kind of grace.
Cat Power- The Covers Record
Iron & Wine / Calexico- In the Reins
Tori Amos- Strange Little Girls