Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Dawn McCarthy: What the Brothers Sang

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Dawn McCarthy
What The Brothers Sang
Drag City

What The Brothers Sang is a tribute album to the Everly Brothers recorded by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy. Will Oldham, the Louisville native, has been recording under various names since the early ’90s (he’s been the Bonnie ‘Prince’ since 1998), and composes idiosyncratic blends of blues, folk, soul, country, gospel, and indie rock. He often works with female singers on his albums — lately he’s been pairing himself with Angel Olsen, who just released her own debut – and McCarthy played his foil in 2006, for The Letting Go. McCarthy also performs as a founding member of Faun Fables, whose most recent album, A Vaster Dark, was a concept album, complete with suites and interludes, about weather and the seasons. Both artists are steeped in older American musical forms, and they excel at combining them in new and ambitious ways.

This makes them a good choice to put together an album of Everly Brothers covers. In addition to their own talents, Oldham and McCarthy roped in an experienced and talented bunch of musicians to help them. This group includes McCarthy’s frequent collaborator in Faun Fables, Nils Frykdahl, and several of Oldham’s comrades in arms, like Emmett Kelley and Matt Sweeney.

The Everly Brothers require little introduction: one of the best early rock and roll groups, they started pumping out hit after hit, starting in the late ’50s on the Cadence label and switching to Warner Bros in the early ’60s. Mixing rock, pop, folk, and country, Don and Phil harmonized sweetly and perfectly on songs which revolved around a strong backbeat and guitars. Later groups – most notably the Beatles — owed a huge debt to their approach. Several duos have attempted to cover their songs in the past, including Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry, who had success with a cover of the Everly’s “All I Have To Do Is Dream” in 1968, and Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, who recorded an EP of Everly songs in 1980.

When making a tribute album, the first choice is always the toughest: what songs do you cover? Do you take on all the big hits, or do you dive into the back catalog, introducing listeners to lesser-known tunes? McCarthy and Oldham stand firmly in the latter category. They take very few of the early songs – “Kentucky” comes from the first Everly’s album; “Devoted To You” was a smash in 1958, and “So Sad” appeared on the 1960 album It’s Everly Time. Most of the songs are from the mid to late ’60s, from albums like 1965’s Beat And Soul or 1966’s Two Yanks In England. And several of the songs are B-sides or picks from compilations of previously unreleased Everly Brothers’s recordings, found on albums like The New Album: Previously Unreleased Songs From The Early Sixties or box sets like Heartaches And Harmonies.

Don and Phil Everly sang with boyish innocence, and they had pure, clear voices that remained exactly in sync. Naturally Oldham and McCarthy can’t recreate that kind of sound, and wisely they don’t try to. Their voices worked nicely together on The Letting Go, and they haven’t lost their chemistry. Oldham’s voice is a distinctive instrument; you would never confuse his singing with a boy’s, and even when he’s singing his sweetest, his vocals maintain a hushed texture. He takes the lower part of the harmonies, and McCarthy’s light, pretty voice fits in easily on the top end. Where the Everly’s had conviction which stemmed from their remarkable unison, Oldham and McCarthy gain strength from combining their difference.

Most of the songs are excellent renditions of slow or mid-tempo ballads. A song like “So Sad” may even improve on the original. Amid finger picking and a weeping slide guitar, Oldham and McCarthy accentuate the drop at the end of the phrase, “It makes me cry / To see love die”, and McCarthy throws an extra bit of energy into her “makes” for good measure. When the hook comes along right after this – “So sad / to see good love go bad” – it feels like cool relief, a wash of lullaby that lets you forget about the anguish of only a moment before.

Oldham and McCarthy show a powerful side as well. Despite telling of a man missing a woman who used to stop at his shack on the milk train, “Milk Train” remains jubilant, with pleasant backing “la-la’s” and what sounds like an accordion playing behind the main harmony. “Somebody Help Me” chugs and bashes — there’s garage and punk in the bass and guitars, and McCarthy gets a chance to really throw her voice around singing unaccompanied on the verses.

Oldham and McCarthy use the catalogue of the Everly Brothers as a starting point, but their album succeeds in creating fresh material from a source that has often served as inspiration in the past. Fans of the Everly’s can appreciate the new approach to the songs, and followers of Oldham and McCarthy who aren’t familiar with the band they pay tribute to can also enjoy the album. There’s no good love going bad on this one.

RATING 6 / 10