In the early '90s, young Louisville, Kentucky, native Will Oldham abandoned a promising career as an actor (he had appeared as the feckless boy preacher in John Sayles's Matewan) and began releasing purposely obscure, highly personal records. At the beginning he was known as the Palace Brothers; later, it was Palace Songs, and still later, Palace Music. Whatever his moniker, Oldham made quasi-roots music that was always raw, spare and emotional, with production values that were either endearingly or frustratingly roughshod (depending on the listener's orientation), and all of it was designed to showcase his keening, quavering open wound of a voice.
A decade has since passed. Oldham's voice has deepened and matured. At the start of the millennium, he abandoned the Palace brand name altogether; he now prefers the eccentric nom de vox of Bonnie "Prince" Billy. While his songwriting remained highly idiosyncratic, the sound of his records became increasingly affable. In 2001, Johnny Cash released a version of Oldham's song "I See a Darkness," on which the composer could be heard contributing keening, quavering harmonies behind the stolid intonations of the man in black. It seemed that the stubbornly marginal firebrand was being drawn into the light. Perhaps it was time for a look back.
Just out on Drag City, Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music is a rare bird, a hits compilation from an artist who never ventured near the Billboard charts. Fifteen songs from Oldham's Palace-era prime were chosen and rerecorded last year in Nashville with a band of country studio pros. And while previously offhand and/or tortured ditties like "No More Workhorse" and "Ohio River Boat Song" are rendered slick and accessible in their new environs, the end result is, in effect, just as odd as any of the artist's previous work. Here is folk-art music that somehow wouldn't sound out of place on commercial radio, or maybe just commercial-sounding music with lyrics that unapologetically reference everything from incest scenarios to classical Russian literature.
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The record itself sounds great. The instrumental backing is both sensitive and expert throughout, and Oldham's voice is seductive, sly and inviting. Playing the tracks alongside their original Palace counterparts reveals how well composed these songs really are. They're equally stirring in both raw and cooked forms. Indeed, this disc would act as a great introduction to one of the most productive, individualistic songwriters at work today -- that is, if there were a chance in hell that anyone beyond Oldham's already existing cult would ever hear it.