Bonnie “Prince” Billy and The Phantom Family Halo: The Mindeater

[15 November 2011]

By Jonathan Kosakow

PopMatters Associate Events Editor

Let’s get right into the thick of things: the most surprising thing about this album is that even though Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s name is front and center on the pressing, in the media, and just about every where else on this record, he is not the main songwriter. As it turns out, three quarters of this four-song EP was written by Phantom Family Halo frontman Dominic Cipolla (the other track is a cover of The Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care As Much”). I’ll admit it, at first I felt gypped. Duped. Misled. Snaffoozled. Embarrassed. How could the sweet Prince lend his name to something that’s not even his? Have you ever gone to see a movie with Quentin Tarantino’s name on it only because it had Quentin Tarantino’s name on it, but it turned out Tarantino barely had anything to do with it all? That’s how I felt.

Luckily, I was soon pacified by the quivery, wavy, crackling voice of Will Oldham. And as it turns out, it’s quite a lovely album.

To give you a little background, Oldham (aka Bonnie, above), met Phantom Family Halo at an anniversary party thrown by a mutual friend for Texan guitarist Roky Erikson. They played the aforementioned Everly Brothers tune together, hit it off, and the rest is history. Most of the EP, aside from this now over-mentioned cover, was recorded on the second floor of a funeral home in Kentucky, where Cipolla was living at the time. If that right there doesn’t tell you something about how this album sounds, or the type of music that Phantom Family Halo makes, you may as well stop reading right now. 

Bonnie “Prince” Billy is perhaps one of the most influential musicians of our generation. If the internet didn’t exist, it’s likely he’d fall into the same category as Anvil before the movie, Daniel Johnston before Kurt Cobain wore that t-shirt, Jeff Buckley before he drowned or Robert Johnson before Eric Clapton recorded that album. Inspiring, beautiful, influential, and too often overlooked. But luckily, Bonnie Billy has been and remains front and center in the groundbreaking department. After recording his own music for nearly two decades, it’s an interesting twist that Oldham would team up with a band and record an album that sounds just like an album he could have recorded himself. I don’t say that reproachingly, I say it because it’s impossible to put Oldham’s voice onto a track and prevent it from becoming his. He is just that dynamic of a singer.

That dynamic voice, though, is perhaps the most perfect choice to harmonize with the raspy whisper of Cipolla, who sings alongside Oldham on the entirety of the EP, with the exception of “I Wonder If I Care As Much”. Together, their vocals on the title track, which also starts the record, are just plain creepy. The track as a whole is a delicate, unnerving whisper of longing. On the chorus, Oldham and Cipolla croon in unison: “I want love to ease my mind / the heart needs love to cure the mind” a line that changes in the end to “I want love to eat my mind / the heart needs love to cure the mind”. The final minute is a reprise on the vocal melody played on organ, a drastic change considering that the rest of the song featured only two acoustic guitars and a drum.

“Roki for Now” is quite a bit less eerie. The opening lines, “No one ever tells us anything / I just want to sit in this chair and stare at the world / I feel pretty fine”, coupled with a repetitive bassy guitar riff, are immediately more uplifting than any one section of “The Mindeater”. And the refrain, “You knew me when I was a younger man / My eyes were wide, full of sin / Knock at the door of our crazy land / I opened it up and you came in” is far more hopeful. The two songs are so opposite in feeling that you may begin to think the album is rather schizophrenic. And you wouldn’t be altogether wrong. For much of it, the only thing tying the tracks together besides a band name are the acoustics and the consistently low-key vocal harmonies. Again, in “Roki”, the song trails off in a completely opposite fashion than the first half of the track: from melodious guitar we are left with white noise, a barely noticeable phrase of synthetic chords, and what sounds like distant hammering.

Like an explosion “I Wonder If I Care As Much” switches on in a full blast of sustained distorted guitar note over drum march and faithful musical engineering, but then fades into minimalism before the nasal vocals of Todd Brashear and Oldham enter our souls. Fittingly, the rollercoaster of sound within the track matches the rollercoaster of emotion on the album. “I Wonder” comes out of the previous, more hopeful song in complete and utter despair—a song at the end of its wits, having cared so much that it questions if it even cares anymore. The Everly Brothers’ tune is easily the most soul- and ear-capturing on the record, and is a far cry from the original. And when I say far, I mean far. Think about swimming from China to California. Where the Everly’s version had hope in its despair, Phantom Family Halo has given up all chance. Where the Everly’s had brightness in their close harmonies and melodies, PFH shows only distance. And to boot, this version more than triples the length—1958’s version ends cleanly at 2:10 whereas the 2011 version pulls an all-out, teenage-angst basement jam for an extra 5 minutes.

After a short but eventful visit, The Mindeater EP leaves us on yet another schizophrenic note. “Suddenly the Darkness” is one of those tunes that you could sing along to, bob your head to, and actually smile with, but when you actually sit and listen to the lyrics, you kind of want to stab yourself in the throat. Thankfully, it ends on a note of encouragement, but its kind of like trying to laugh at a clown who you just saw smoking a cigarette outside the tent.

As an introduction to The Phantom Family Halo, The Mindeater gives us something that will take some time to digest. There are so many twists and turns that it’s hard to know what to make of their sound. Further, with Bonnie “Prince” Billy taking so much of the vocal spotlight, whatever PHF comes out with next will be an almost entirely new undertaking for those that are intrigued by these recordings. If you think you’ve discovered your new favorite band because of the The Mindeater, you may feel differently when they are without Oldham’s quiver. Whether his appearance on the record was a publicity maneuver or not (note: I hope not), we won’t know. What we do know is that, at the very least, The Mindeater leaves us with a lot to ponder.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149256-bonnie/