Remember those great “specially priced” cassettes that had two whole albums, one on each side? I had a few of these back in the day. I liked the idea so much that when CDs became popular, I would still dub two records onto a single 90-minute cassette. I listened to cassettes well into the early part of the millennium, until I finally got rid of my Ford Taurus and its factory tape deck.
So for more than a decade, I regularly paired CDs I wanted to hear in my car. Bug and Green Mind? Yep. The first two Black Crowes records? Made that one more than once. Use Your Illusion I & II? Duh. I also remember making quite a few tapes that featured two complementary artists. For example, The Jayhawks & Uncle Tupelo. Or Pixies & Camper van Beethoven.
I think most people have similar cassette memories. Pairing the CDs (or LPs). Choosing what songs to leave off so you wouldn’t run out of tape or cut off the songs. That kind of editing is a lost art now. And I don’t miss it, really. When I bought my first new car in 2002, I was hella excited to finally have a CD changer in my car. And I really enjoy having XM radio and an MP3-capable CD changer in my current ride.
Side 1 – Beware
Will Oldham has said Merle Haggard is one of his three favorite living legends, along with R. Kelly and Leonard Cohen, but on most of his records the Cohen influence is the only obvious member of that trinity who comes through. Finally, on Beware, I’m starting to hear Haggard’s golden 70s stuff filter through again—for the first time, maybe, since Palace’s Viva Last Blues. Perhaps nowhere do you hear Haggard’s classic mid-tempo strut than on “I Am Goodbye.” It’s a big, pleasurable romp that makes me want to strum a dreadnought air guitar and wear a fringed-leather jacket. The whole of Beware is one of my favorite Oldham records in a long time. It’s for sure my favorite Bonnie “Prince” Billy record. And it’s a formidable Side 1.
Side 2 – To Willie
“Reasons to Quit” from Pancho and Lefty, has always been one of my favorite Merle Haggard / Willie Nelson duets. But after hearing Phosphorescent’s version on To Willie, I think I like that version better. I know that sounds crazy. But Phosphorescent (a.k.a Matthew Houck) actually captures the ragged, wobbly weariness you’d expect to hear. The 1983 versions of Haggard and Nelson made the song sound like a mannered, quasi-Gospel tune. Maybe that’s what it was supposed to be. While it was certainly suitable for country radio at the time, they don’t exactly sound like “outlaws."
Houck doesn’t sound like an outlaw either, but he does sound like someone who’s truly haunted by bad habits. Throughout To Willie, Houck reverently copies Willie’s instrumentation, but his cracked whisper-thin voice undercuts the reverence and allows you to enjoy the thing on its own terms.
The title and album cover are an obvious homage to Willie’s own reverent love letter, To Lefty. Listening to Houck, though, you get the feeling he’s talking about Oldham, not Nelson. It’s that creaky, borrowed voice swinging between childhood and old age that makes To Willie something more than an indie rock stunt. It’s what always seems to make Oldham sound wise. Here, with tunes Nelson either wrote or covered, the wisdom isn’t really there. In its place is the sound of resignation, left un-tempered by Nelson’s good humor or guitar chops. I’m not suggesting Houck outdoes Nelson. With the exception of “Reasons to Quit”, it’s not even close. But Phosphorescent’s To Willie is still an awfully interesting listen.
If you like sad bastard music like I do, these records will make a pretty good 2-fer-1.
This week’s miscellanea
Fizy is a charming, bare-bones music search engine.
Ars Technica surveys the stinking carcass of “Big Music”.
I stand with Portugal on this one. See more bands suffer slings and arrows, er…bottles.
Have you always wanted to have lunch with Devo’s drummer? From the new revenues department, that will be $250.
Finally, Metafilter links to a very cool documentary about the Fuzz pedal.