Collaborations between disparate musical acts tend to yield one of two results — an embarrassing stain for all involved or a triumph of reinvigorated artistry. For Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham) and Trembling Bells, their partnership falls decidedly in the latter category, bearing sweet, yet strange, fruit in the form of new album The Marble Downs.
The record’s ten songs are effectively a synergy of not only both artists’ distinct sounds, but of two countries’ musical traditions. On the one side is Oldham with his noir Appalachia-Americana fancies; on the other are Trembling Bells with their British whimsy and baroque ’60s pop. On paper, the two styles may seem more apt to clang against each other than merge into anything coherent. Actualized on record, though, the initial jarring soon turns infectious. The two approaches don’t unite in a singular harmony, but entwine around each other like a marble cake, their strengths separate, yet complimentary. Take the back-to-back placement of organ-driven, garage-rock stomping “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With a Little Longing” with the sparse ode to loneliness “Excursions Into Assonanc” — opposing sentiments expressed with equally contrasting musical styles, yet somehow they work together within the context of the record as a whole.
The work is peopled with underwear-clad angels, sinister demons, Johnnie Walker, Merge Haggard, the Grim Reaper, ruined livers and dead anniversary flowers. It sounds dour, sure, but beyond that, the record is damn fun, the music funereal, but in a celebratory, jazzy way. Part of the album’s effectiveness is that Oldham and the Bells don’t take themselves too seriously. Wry humor and melodrama abound among the cacophonous instrumentation and protean song structures. Credit Bells’ founder and drummer Alex Neilson with crafting the off-kilter terrain, the album sharing some of its deliberate eccentricity with Tim Buckley’s classic Starsailor.
Opening the record with a grandiose arrangement and Bells’ singer Lavinia Blackwell’s siren-like intonations, “I Made a Date (With an Open Vein)” clears the road for the journey to follow. As Blackwell’s operatic howls carry forward and the brass resounds, a fuzzy guitar sidewinds beneath like a snake through the desert sand. When Oldham’s warbling voice joins the fray, it is as a perfect foil for Blackwell’s cutting precision, their pairing a study in the contrast between the sacred and the profane. “How long? / Not so long / Till Death knocks at your door / As the rain falls on everyone / So the reaper keeps his sword”, Oldham and Blackwell sing in unison, closing out the number in a refrain that may appear despairing, but could also come across as a call for devil-may-care abandon.
What follows is a series of tête-à-tête duets between Oldham and Blackwell, rich with pathos whether expressing the two characters’ disdain for one another or their mutually-destructive affection. “I Can Tell You’re Leaving” is a series of swapped turn-of-phrase put-downs, reminiscent of the Pogues’ “Fairtytale of New York”. Oldham plays the desperate drunk to Blackwell’s soiled dove, finishing each other’s sentences in scathing and clever cursing as jaunty piano-key tickling plays behind them. “I used to be your universe”, Oldham sings, provoking Blackwell’s, “You’re not even my Birmingham”.
Coming in on the other side of the spectrum is the sentimental “Love is a Velvet Noose”, a title sure to be a motto on the lips of the jilted and experienced. Rife with suicidal implications and whiskey-beckoning oblivion, the song is the most affecting and sincere of the lot, a paean of Oldham and Blackwell trading endearments over a mournful cello and violin and sparse piano work — “So dress me in a winding sheet / While my lover sings the blues / A dozen angels ’round my crown and feet / And ’round your neck / A velvet noose”.
The best one-two punch occurs near the close of the record, starting with Blackwell taking lead on the a cappella “My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him”. She is menace personified in this traditional murder ballad setup: “I wish my husband / He was dead / And in his grave / I’d quickly lay him / And then I’d find another one / That had a little courage in him.” The track bleeds into a reworking of Oldham’s “Riding”, a scary as hell blues scorcher featuring a call-and-response between vocalists, Oldham demur and Blackwell bellowing: “Where you goin’ ridin’, boy? / I’m gonna ride on down to see you”. The stench of brimstone saturates the piece, its hammering intensity befitting the charge of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Praise aside, there are some missteps on the album. The Robin Gibb cover closing the record, “Lord Bless All”, lacks the impact a work of this stature deserves; perhaps coming on the heels of the two previous songs set the odds against it. Also, a number of the songs extend a tad longer than necessary, trailing off rather than wrapping up.
All said and done, though, The Marble Downs should be a welcome addition to the oeuvre of both artists involved. Quirky and challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, it may not garner new fans unfamiliar with either Oldham or Trembling Bells, but it nevertheless deserves a spot amongst the best collaborations of recent years.