Recording of March 2022: Blind Date Party

Bill Callahan And Bonnie Prince Billy: Blind Date Party
Drag City Records (16/44.1kHz FLAC, Qobuz; also available on LP, CD, and cassette tape). 2021. Bill Callahan and Bonnie Prince Billy, prods.
Performance ****
Sonics ***

Bill Callahan and Bonnie Prince Billy—the latter is a stage name for Will Oldham—did not set out to make an album together. They were just trying fill the long pandemic months with music. In 2020, they started singing other people's songs together, broadcasting them to fans via Zoom. They recorded the tracks, choosing a different guest musician to contribute to each song. Eventually they amassed recordings of enough covers, plus reimaginings of some original works, to create this album for Drag City, where they're both signed artists. It's an endlessly interesting and clever project, full of musical exploration. Some of the covers nearly outshine the original versions.

Part of the album's success surely stems from the yin/yang of the two driving personalities and musical approaches. Callahan's previous releases show a quiet cynicism, sorrow wrapped in wonder, delivered in a deep, golden voice. Oldham, on the other hand, specializes in quirky humor and a sardonic worldview, backed with banjos and a smirk. That interplay led to an eclectic collection of songs full of good surprises.

For an album to stand the test of time, it needs solid bookends. Callahan and Oldham went with steel-infused marble: They open with Cat Stevens and close with John Prine. The Stevens song is "Blackness of the Night," which has lyrics dealing with rebellion and loneliness. A plucked acoustic guitar contrasts with mournful synth chords while the duo sings in close harmony. Guest electric guitarist Azita provides a sad and angry solo at the bridge. As for the Prine, "She Is My Everything" gets a heart-tugging treatment. The decision to use Oldham's thin, sincere voice as the lead was brilliant: Prine's wordy, naturalistic lyrics, flecked with humor, work best with a human-scale mouthpiece. Saxes (soprano and baritone) twine around guest guitarist Sir Richard Bishop's harmonic core.

Part of the fun of this album is the contrast from one track to the next. Billie Eilish's "Wish You Were Gay" gets a disco pulse and deadpan backup singing from Sean O'Hagan, utterly contrasting with the dreamy, ethereal reading of Heather Summers's "Red-Tailed Hawk," which precedes it. Robert Wyatt, a veteran of the British prog rock and jazz fusion scene, wrote "Sea Song," one of the album's highlights; you would hardly expect its surreally disjointed, dissonant sounds to act as a segue into Lowell George's "I've Been the One," presented in standard folksinger-with-guitar mode.

For all the imagination behind Callahan and Oldham's vocal arrangements and their own instrumental playing, the guests contribute much of the distinctiveness to each track. Improvisatory guitarist Bill MacKay twists the harmony of Donald Fagen's "Deacon Blues," which is quite an accomplishment considering how innovative Steely Dan is when it comes to chord progressions. Guitarist Cory Hanson, who earlier this year strayed from his usual psychedelia and acid rock to explore Americana on the album Pale Horse Rider, provides country backing on Michael Burton's "Night Rider's Lament." And then there's George Xylouris, who plays Cretan laouto (lute), the most inspired addition to this banquet of musical sounds. The haunting resonance of the instrument's deep wooden body and gut strings adds a touch to Lou Reed's "Rooftop Garden" that we never knew it needed (but it did).

Most often, the lead voice is Callahan's intense baritone, with Oldham's shaky tenor in the background. Oldham even hands over his own song, "Arise Therefore," in a Bowie-esque electronic arrangement that distorts Callahan's usually smooth voice. This cover arrangement is the biggest change from the original song of any on this record. What had been, in Oldham's 1996 recording, the slow, quiet creep of an animal emerging from its hole after the nuclear winter now becomes a furious human holding the A-bomb. It's shocking and affecting.

Oldham does have moments to show his own expressive power. The best is Leonard Cohen's "The Night of Santiago," a historical vignette inspired by a Lorca poem. The sensual Spanish-style melody is laid over handclaps and syncopated guitar work from David Grubbs. Dave Rich's country waltz "I've Made Up My Mind" also features Oldham. His simple delivery, without vibrato but decorated with short vocal turns, has an authentic-seeming mountain gospel openness.

Anyone who has tried to make music with others in this time of remote interaction has experienced the challenges of ensemble playing. Here, the sound production, apparently the result of sharing files online and taking turns tweaking them, has ragged edges as the various participants try to fit into the musical whole. There are moments when the threads in the sound fabric become dangerously loose. But that imperfect, homemade quality gives the proceedings a pleasing intimacy, even if it's not completely human, like a Zoom chat with an old friend.—Anne E. Johnson

Anton's picture

I like Bill Callahan, his work as "Smog" is great, too.

If anyone wants to hear some old Callahan...

Bonny Prince Billy is great, too!

Sp, gonna go home and try this album tonight!

Shahram's picture

Thanks for covering this album - outside of indie publications and drag city devotees this album is destined to be under exposed.