Flashback to the year 2000: Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy had recently released one of the greatest albums of that decade and one of the greatest albums of all time via I See a Darkness. His friends at Temporary Residence invited the always prolific artist to record an EP for the Travels in Constants mail order series. Oldham reached deep into his heart and into his record collection to find six songs that spotlighted artists from New Zealand, Jamaica, Los Angeles, Nashville and the UK. Oldham retired to his brother Paul’s studio and tracked all six pieces live. The CD came and went and then slipped into the sands of time for well over a decade. To celebrate 20 years as a label, Temporary Residence has issued an expanded edition of the EP that will please stalwarts and provide those hearing the record for the first time with an alternate experience.
The collection opens with a raw-nerved rendition of John Phillips’ “Someone’s Sleeping”, a blip that barely registers save for that live energy. It’s only when Oldham and friends kick into PJ Harvey’s “Sweeter Than Anything” that you grasp the full magnitude of their commitment and power. It’s a kind of revelation, actually, hearing how ferocious everyone is on that tune. So often Oldham’s live recordings find him sounding relaxed, confident and in control.
The first is absolutely true here, but there’s a sense that the whole thing might fall apart, a danger that’s not always present in his other live releases. Here, he frequently sounds like a man on the verge of out-and-out catharsis, as though he’s about to kick the living daylights out of the barrier twixt the listener and the recorded product. That’s especially evident on “Same Love That Made Me Laugh”, a piece penned by American treasure Bill Withers. There, he captures the understated pain from the original and transforms it into something that is sometimes terrifying and sometimes comforting.
“A Dream of the Sea” is filled with whimsy while “Strange Things” is wonderfully off-kilter, teetering on that verge between together and not together in a way that only Oldham can pull off. If you’re tempted to think that Tim McGraw’s “Just to See You Smile” was a put on, the deft and heartfelt performance prove otherwise. Oldham finds the weirdness in the song, of course, but also the sweetness, much the way he’s done time and again throughout his impressive career.
And the live versions? The alternate version doesn’t really change anything except for adding crowd noise and stretching the length of one or two of the tracks by several seconds. Still, it’s fun to hear the fresh, fast and ferocious takes on each one more time. In the end “Sweeter Than Anything” remains the best of the lot and “A Dream of the Sea”, lest we forget kicks with sweet, sweet ferocity.
Although this was initially available in limited supply it’s hardly lesser Oldham. It’s essential to understanding the era in which the artist was hitting his stride and coming to understand the full reach of his considerable powers. His audience was finding those things too and so this glimpse backward brings with it tremendous joy as well as six unforgettable performances.