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    Wednesday, June 04, 2008

    Good, earthly music singing into my head

    Photo by Reinfried Marass

    Swaths of green are rolling past my window. Shining lakes and gem-blue waterways are gliding by. The train's pulling into Ticonderoga, and all the distance holds are a few squat hillside homes. It's been a long time since I've seen a small town; after a year-and-a-half in New York City, I'd almost forgotten that neon and skyscrapers and subway rattle aren't inevitable parts of the landscape. Out here in the upper scoops of the state, it's almost scarily quiet. Just as I think I'm about to adjust, the train chugs back into gear and shuffles on toward the next station.

    On my way up north, I've been listening to Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Lie Down in the Light on repeat. It's been the ideal travel companion, not only soundtracking my trip but heightening it. Sure, it sounded magnificent in my apartment to begin with, but here, it's damn near awing. Like my scenery, it's a testament to spareness and space, to simplicity and the essential. Stripped down, gentle, and unhurried, the album often resembles an ode to small-town American life. As Will Oldham blissfully states in the aptly named opener, "Easy Does It," "There's my brothers, my girlfriends, my mom and my dad/ And there's me, and that's all there needs to be."

    Throughout Lie Down in the Light, Oldham projects that same steady air of peace. It feels as if he's fought his battles, and now he's content with whatever meager victories they've yielded. I get that same sense from the music, which mostly strums and sways placidly beneath him. It's backed up by many of his lyrics too, which come off not just as wise but reverent and biblical. "Well, the glory goes to those who do not seek it," he intones solemnly on "You Remind Me of Something." Later, on "Missing One," he mourns a lost love with a near-saintly acceptance: "[M]y fullfillment will be to do what I do/ as you taught me to."

    Like all of Oldham's projects, throughout his various incarnations, Lie Down in the Light isn't a genre project. It's primarily informed by country music, but it'd fit as awkwardly on Music Row as, say, Neko Case. It has a strong rooting in folk as well, both in the traditional version and its more avant mutations. I even think back to old pop ballads during Oldham's soaring duets with Ashley Webber, a welcome inheritor of Dawn McCarthy's The Letting Go vocals. But the most glaring change, and one of the most affecting, has to be the closing hymn, "I'll Be Glad." Concluding with an choir, and featuring Oldham at his most triumphant, the song sounds like front-porch gospel, Thoreau by way of Kirk Franklin. Listening to it over and over, I look out at the weathered roofs and quiet roads of upstate towns, and everything ahead of these atheist eyes feels holy for a minute.

    * MP3: "Easy Does It" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy from Lie Down in the Light
    * MP3: "I'll Be Glad" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy from Lie Down in the Light [Buy it]
    * Previously: Today I started celebrating again: Bonnie "Prince" Billy MP3s
    * Website: Bonnie "Prince" Billy

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