Bonnie "Prince" Billy & the Cairo Gang: The Wonder Show of the World

This is the kind of bare-bones recording that Will Oldham has continually been lurching towards, and it's worthy of whatever accolades it will receive.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & the Cairo Gang

The Wonder Show of the World

Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2010-03-23
UK Release Date: 2010-03-29
Label website

"Without us / The song is nothing", sings Will Oldham in "The Sounds Are Always Begging". And although the art of interpretation can potentially make or break a tune, a good one can certainly stand on its own. No matter how far down you strip a song, its quality should not be diminished. The Wonder Show of the World, the latest under Oldham’s Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker, is mostly a quiet and skeletal affair offering up only guitar chords, vocal harmonies, and occasionally some lead guitar work courtesy of Emmet Kelly. Fans of Oldham’s less-is-more-approach to his own style of dark and twisted indie-folk have probably been bracing themselves for an album like this for a while. So it’s no revelation that the fans are well served here. But is The Wonder Show of the World worth any investment from the casual observer who is likely to be intimidated by Will Oldham’s enormous discography? Absolutely.

Billed as a collaboration between Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang, this new album has the feeling of just a handful of friends strumming along one another inside an empty coffee shop. The Cairo Gang have supported Bonnie "Prince" Billy on three previous albums, so the musical rapport is already there. These forged musical paths have helped pave the way for warmth, a term that can be tossed around liberally when describing an album such as The Wonder Show of the World. You could even say that the billowing vocal harmonies of "Someone Coming Through" come comfortably close to Crosby, Still & Nash.

Oldham’s approach to recording has not changed. He still probably thinks that refinement is something for the big leaguers, not wanting to sacrifice his interpretations in service for a flawless take. It’s all the sort of rag-tag hit-and-run studio sessions that have characterized his other works; skewed timing, a slight harmonic mishap, a slurred consonant, and telling his friends on "Go Folks, Go" "Now here’s the chorus," just to name a few. It would all be distracting if the songs weren’t any good. Fortunately, these songs are just as good as anything Oldham has proved himself capable of in the past.

He continues to mine the blacker side of Americana. Storm clouds loom over "Troublesome Houses" when he tells us that his love could "taste trouble on my mouth". The aforementioned standout track "The Sounds Are Always Begging" tells the tale of a family gone mad while learning the virtues of music and melody. And a song title like "Teach Me to Bear You," well, can it get more heavy-handed than that?

Other Bonnie "Prince" Billy albums such as Ease Down the Road and I See a Darkness are probably more likely to leave a stronger first impression to the Will Oldham newcomer. But The Wonder Show of the World is the kind of album that rewards persistence. Sure, it may not register the first few times you hear it. With most songs lacking percussion, you may think it’s barely there. But should you choose to stick with it, it will unfold for you about as naturally as all good music should. It’s the kind of stuff that will surely secure a legacy. "Kids / I hope in years to come / I will be strapped to the movement of time / In such a way / That this still makes sense", is the last line sung on the album, but I don’t think he has anything to worry about.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.