Bitchin' Bajas and Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties
Will Oldham teams with Bitchin' Bajas for a record that's beautiful and meditative. Are we to believe that these cats have found the path to enlightenment? Or have they just made a groovy record?
By the time you finished breakfast Will Oldham had already completed three new works that find the artist known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy casting his creative seed in no fewer than four directions. He can sing a Graham Nash tune in Portuguese, hang with King Crimson associates California Guitar Trio long enough to play some Skynyrd, then record a collection of Everly Brothers cuts with one of his most stunning collaborators, Dawn McCarthy. But he’s never eclectic for eclectic’s sake. In each of those cases (and many others) he fully inhabits the music. He can teeter on the edge of the avant-garde as comfortably as he can croon an Appalachian ballad.
This recording allows him to do both. In a way.
He’s teamed with Drag City label mates Bitchin’ Bajas before. Wasn’t that long ago that they all got together for a Record Store Day rendition of the traditional number “Pretty Saro”. Later, the friends spent a single day creating Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties. Listening to these nine pieces you’d think that everyone involved has been making music together since at least the womb.
Each work unfurls at a comfortable pace, revealing its inner jewels slowly, comfortably. Oldham sings in his most natural voice, enveloping the listener in a peaceful haze during the eight-minute “Nature Makes Us for Ourselves”, which leans somewhere between a prayer and plea. The Bajas lead and follow, creating dreamy beds of music that owe as much to the East and they do America’s own soil.
If the lines between invitation and foreboding aren’t always clear in that track, they’re even more blurred in the lysergic-tinged “Your Heart Is Pure, Your Mind Is Clear, Your Soul Devout”. There melodic and percussive touches that sound like broken toys swaying in the wind as they attempt to play out some half-remembered song that can’t fully be prized from memory’s deepest recesses. These give way to what sounds like a summoning of souls to mass, to worship, to meditation, a ceremony that is both communal and intensely personal. What was barely listenable for over two minutes at the start becomes something the listener can’t let go of when the eight-minute mark arrives.
“Despair Is Criminal” eases its way into the world, a gentle breeze that summons stylistic comparisons to both EDM and church music. Perhaps both are music that can be heard in a temple and the lyrics, which find Oldham urging the listener toward rebirth, support the claim. “You Will Soon Discover How Truly Fortunate You Really Are” proves cut from the same cloth, though its full nine minutes carry us to place that we could not have predicted elsewhere. When our singer tells us that there is “no need to worry” because we will “always have everything” that we need, we have no choice but to believe.
Only “Your Hard Work Is About to Pay Off, Keep on Keeping On” sounds anything like a conventional tune. It’s also the only one that could be read as being filled with empty platitudes. Its abrupt ending reinforces this idea. Even a backward glance at the rest of the album’s inspirational titles and spiritual overtones provides us with a seed of doubt. Perhaps these partners have been playing at our willingness to accept positive reinforcement as The Truth. And perhaps we’ve been fools for letting it lull us into acceptance.
Then again maybe we haven’t. Maybe this is truth. And maybe Billy and the Bajas want us to open our souls and express that from within the way they have here. Because what we hear here is a reminder that there is beauty in the world, even if it only arrives four or five or nine minutes at a time. There are, it reminds us, benevolent forces in the universe and our chance to commune with them starts in these grooves.