Old Soul in Stereo

Will Oldham opens up on new film, CD

Will Oldham's contributions to the American songbook have maintained a steady, scraggly, sublime output since the early '90s. Though Oldham has left behind the Palace, Palace Music, and Palace Brothers monikers with which he began his musical career, he still rarely records under his given name, instead using the Bonnie "Prince" Billy handle for the past several years. His latest album, The Letting Go, was recorded in Iceland, and furthers the evolution of his take on Americana, Appalachia, folk, and country — all essential ingredients that constitute his eerily emotional and artful blend of down-home songwriting.

Music isn't the only path Oldham follows. He has also been intimately associated with cinema throughout his life. As a teen actor, performing with a passion far from the usual O.C./90210 anti-zeal that we're all familiar with, he stole the show in films such as John Sayles' Matewan (he also appeared in the made-for-TV movie Everybody's Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure, about the little girl who fell into a well). Over the past few years, Oldham has scored and provided songs for various documentaries and features, including David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls.

His latest filmic endeavor is Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, which opens in San Francisco on Oct. 20. The story follows two friends, played by Oldham and Daniel London, who reunite for an overnight camping trip to Oregon hot springs. The two men, both in their 30s, have taken very different paths in life and their weekend together is a culmination of this disparity, fueled by emotion, nature, and Oldham's character Kurt's constant pot smoking. Kurt is a neo-hippie man-child, and his familiar balding head and potbelly further this characterization. Oldham's performance is enjoyably understated. In fact, the whole film is understated, as much of the screen time is occupied by tracking shots through the car's windows, while Kurt and Mark explore the divide between them through meaningless banter (Kurt on Mark's imminent fatherhood: "Having a kid is so fucking real").

Will Oldham minus beard.
Steve Gullick
Will Oldham minus beard.

Details

Admission is $18; call 885-0750 or visit www.gamh.com for more info.
Old Joy opens in select theaters on Oct. 20.
the Great American Music Hall at 8 p.m.

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The Letting Go, however, is a decidedly more adult effort than Oldham's portrayal of the emotionally arrested Kurt. The record opens with "Love Come to Me," a swath of strings softly blending into acoustic guitar and the singer's soothing croon. Yes, much of the charming crackle and warble of years past is absent from his voice now. But instead of feeling like an affectation or unneeded polish, it comes across like a natural step forward. Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables lends her hushed melodies to many of the album's tracks, a noticeable but quiescent presence throughout. On what is perhaps the strongest song, the melancholically rollicking "Strange Form of Life," Jim White's softly brushed drums tramp beneath romantically poetic lines like, "A dark little room across the nation/ You found myself racing, forgetting the strange and the hard and the soft kiss in the dark room." Oldham gently flirts with the blues on songs like "Cursed Sleep," again awash with subtle string arrangements, but it's on the brief "Cold and Wet" that he truly plays it straight, a tack left mostly untried until now.

The current Bonnie "Prince" Billy tour may be a more democratic affair than most, as Oldham responds to rumors of request taking this time around with the inviting "Give it a shot!" But be polite and wait for the appropriate moment, as his performances can range from the quiet, contemplative tone of Old Joy to raucous, barroom shanties — two sides of his dynamic spectrum that are essential to his artistic work, on film and on record.

 
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