Published Nov 15, 2019What instruments spring to mind at the mention of "alt-folk?" Acoustic guitars? Banjos? Fiddles?
If bawdy, blissful brass wasn't your first answer, you wouldn't be alone. Yet the backing horns on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's latest album, I Made a Place, give its songs an eccentric swagger that is compelling, captivating, heart-wrenching and utterly unpredictable. That's true on everything from their soothing moans on "Dream Awhile" to their grooving, belching bursts on "Thick Air," not to mention their blissful buzz on lead single "Squid Eye."
And just listen to the soaring brass blasts on opening track "New Memory Box," and try not to blissfully grin (you truly won't be able to resist). Bonnie "Prince" Billy himself (the stage name for the mysterious, ever-idiosyncratic Kentucky songsmith Will Oldham) will have you smiling all the more, however, especially as his voice comically cracks at key points to accentuate certain lyrics on that song.
Other unique talents rounding out the LP include fellow Louisville, Kentucky-ian and nimble acoustic picker Nathan Salsburg, whose fret dexterity is more than apparent on the minimalist "Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past." Ditto "I Have Made a Place," where Salsburg's lithe acoustic strums fall in immaculate lockstep with the palpitating drumming of Mike Hyman (another Louisville native of the Gary Burton Quartet fame).
Esteemed singer-songwriter Joan Shelley is also credited as a key contributor, and there's certainly no shortage of impeccably penned melodies and deft lyricism throughout the album. But aside from assembling a top-shelf team, Bonnie "Prince" Billy is also, of course, no slouch in the spotlight. His heartfelt writing and delivery of lines about "the sky ever-darkening" and his "bones starting to shake" on "Dream Awhile" quickly turn goofy, although they're sung with such sincerity they're rendered playfully sweet at one point: "my worry bag is vacant, my cookie jar is here."
That precarious balance between surrealism and sweetness, adept contributions and singular vision, and much more make I Made a Place feel like a must-visit destination — it's one of the best alt-folk albums to come out in years. (Drag City)