Who Were Those Masked Men?
The joke of this album’s title is that it comes from a DC Comics series in which various characters meet up—Batman and the Green Lantern and Flash Gordon all together, for instance—in great intertextual struggle against the forces of evil. So, on this album, shape-shifter Will Oldham adopts what may be his best alter-ego character, the libertine Bonnie “Prince” Billy, to join forces with the Booker T and the MGs of the indie-rock generation, the Chicago post-rockers Tortoise.
Together the singer and the group take on 10 cover songs. The selections are fabulously weird and varied: Milton Nascimento’s Brazilian classic “Cravo e Canela (Clove and Cinnamon)”; the Minutemen’s punk anthem “It’s Expected I’m Gone”; Elton John’s ballad “Daniel”; “Pancho”, a Brokeback Mountain-esque ode to cross-cultural cowboy love written by David Hammer and sung by Don Williams (not to be confused, or maybe in this case, yes indeed, to be confused with Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, sung most famously by Willie Nelson); Richard and Linda Thompson’s eerie “Calvary Cross”; Devo’s robotic workout “That’s Pep!”; Melanie’s self-inquiring “Some Say (I Got Devil)”; Lungfish’s emo tune “Love is Love”; Quixotic’s road story “On My Own”; and the highlight of the album, a prog-rock version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”.
The strategy for these cover versions tends to be to take each song in precisely the opposite direction of its original conceptualization: if it was a fast song, slow it down and deconstruct it; if the song was an acoustic ballad, turn it into an electric rocker; if a tune was filled with gritty determination, saturate it with a weary bleakness; if the tune was about a kind of platonic love, load it with the whiff of perversion. The contrarian impulse works well, teasing unexpected nuances out of many of the choices.
The best example of this is “Thunder Road”, which transforms one of Springsteen’s most hopeful all-American anthems of salvation into a sinister, desperate plea for naughtiness. As Tortoise splays out the chords in all their minor-key wooziness, Will Oldham performs the role of a devil pulling a small-town Jersey girl into a life of iniquity. If Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Thunder Road” leads to freedom on the rush of Clarence Clemons’ famous saxophone riff, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Tortoise’s “Thunder Road” leads straight to hell on a devious synthesizer-and-guitar howl. Nonetheless, the ride sure seems sublime.
The Brave and the Bold once again reveals that Will Oldham is one of the best interpretive singers of the last 20 years. Listen to his voice crack on the word “hair” in the lyric “roll down the window / let the wind blow back your hair” from “Thunder Road”. He’s become the Bonnie “Prince” Billie Holiday of indie-rock singers as compared to a half-dozen virtuosic Ella Fitzgeralds. He might not have the chops, but he knows how to turn a phrase. As Oldham’s voice warbles and splinters and spits out the words, as he leans in toward the listener teasingly or pulls back to establish a haunting distance and coolness, Tortoise demonstrates why it is one of the best backing bands around. The group runs the music through its electronic blender of special effects—splatting synthesizers and gurgling guitars, off-kilter drum beats and distorted bass lines—to bring out hidden harmonic textures and rhythmic oddities in each song.
Many of the performances by Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Tortoise toy with transgressive gender roles and sexuality, a long-running theme in Will Oldham’s music. From the longing of “Daniel”, expressed in the leap into falsetto in the song’s key line, and reinforced by Tortoise’s pulsating electronic effects, to the homoeroticism-on-the-range of the cowboy ballad “Pancho”, to the lyric about being “just a girl in trouble”, from Melanie’s “Some Say (I Got Devil)”, Oldham dons one mask after another. Will the real Will Oldham, please stand up? No. This slippery superhero is a minstrel of the first order. He gives the listener a brief, sleazy peek into the peephole of his soul, he promises listeners a revelation of authenticity, then Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Palace/Palace Brothers vanishes into the ether on a cracked note or an oddly-phrased melody. Who was that masked man? “Though I’d like to tell it exactly how I feel it,” he sings in “Some Say (I Got Devil)”, “Somehow the music hides it and conceals it.”
Minstrelsy or mimicry? As with tribute albums, the danger of a cover album is that it can turn into mere imitation. But as with another mask-wearing, moniker-cloaked, mystery singer, Chan Marshall a.k.a. Cat Power, who released the masterful Covers Record in 2000, The Brave and the Bold transforms its cover songs. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Tortoise are no bar band cranking out covers for the tourists. The Brave and the Bold is a melding of the minds, a comic-book collision of musical forces whose mutant powers turn mere simulation into disturbing mimetic magic.