It's interesting to wonder what the folks who went to Lollapalooza last year -- folks who were seeking out the pop-friendly likes of Green Day or perhaps Smashing Pumpkins -- thought when they wandered to one of the side stages and discovered Will Oldham, a young (no Lollapalooza problems there), relatively unknown (ditto), slightly odd looking (double ditto) singer/songwriter who was plucking out tunes that sounded like something Mother Maybelle Carter might have come up with on a day that she was particularly morose and maybe, on the side, had a yen for some carnal knowledge of close members of her family.
Chances are, they wouldn't have known what to think, which would put them in fairly fine company with the critics who have tried to categorize Oldham's music ever since he came out with his first CD, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You, two years ago. Playing under the name of first the Palace Brothers, then Palace Songs and now Palace -- all the names basically meaning Oldham and a changeable roster of pickup musicians that he found around his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky -- Oldham has created an eerie, moody, yet oddly engaging sound that seems the ultimate expression of up-to-date lo-fi and, at the same time, something captured by a Smithsonian researcher making a field trip into the Appalachian mountains during the Great Depression. The first song on There Is No One is a case in point: an awkwardly strummed acoustic guitar joined by a banjo and what sounds like a gourd rattle rise out of a hollow background that could be an open room in a log cabin while Oldham, in a cracked voice, repeats the phrase "Idle hands are the devil's playthings" and then veers off into a matter-of-factly recounted vision of hell.
Though Oldham has been called everything from punk country to morose, low-key rock, a better designation might be cracked folk. Oldham's voice has some of the same weary wisdom that's found in early recordings of Woody Guthrie, and if his work is considerably more personal and less universal than Guthrie's -- he's doing his own anthems, not anthems for any particular downtrodden group -- Oldham's tunes do, on occasion, share with Guthrie's the sense of having been discovered more than written. Peculiar as the lyrics of Oldham's songs can be, they nonetheless seem traditional -- though one shudders a bit every now and again to wonder just what tradition they come from. As another critic has noted, Oldham's songs mix the harrowing and the mundane -- the abstract anxiety of sin and redemption on one side and some grief on the other -- in a way that only people who've seen a lot of both can do.
Actually, that probably doesn't do justice to just how enchanting Palace's work can be. The sound may be mournful, the words may talk now and again of incest or burning in hell or drunk preachers, but the songs are catchy in their way. They can stick with you, even if you don't want them to.
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It might be called the power of naive art, assuming that Oldham is some untrained performer who came upon his sound accidentally, rather than, say, a clever fellow who knows exactly what he's doing. The naive angle is what Oldham's record company, Drag City, has pushed, and it's something he's supported by not talking in any straightforward way about his background or his development. A publicist warns that "Will tends to make up his history" at times, though when he's contacted in Birmingham, where he's been living with a brother who played on his second CD, Palace Brothers, Oldham is less into myth making than simply brushing off questions about how he got to where he is now.
About all he's really interested in saying about the inspiration for his music is that "it didn't exist before I started writing it, I don't think. I guess it was sort of -- what's that word? -- nascent. Yeah, I guess that's what it was, so in some way I grew up with it, it was rumbling inside, forming its limbs." Pushed, he'll add he began singing the way he does because "it seems like the best way to hit the notes ... I guess each person might or might not have one or two singing voices, and one might serve a purpose where another one doesn't." After a pause, he adds, "The music from the get go was what it was, and now it's probably a little different from what it was." And the new album he's in the process of recording, tentatively titled Viva Last Blues, that's supposed to mark something of a change in direction? "It's got a few musicians on it," he allows. "And, uh, the songs are pretty different songs."
Still, if Oldham seems more interested in having people run across Palace on their own rather than work the publicity machine, he also seems confident that there's an audience waiting out there for his songs. And he may well be right. When he was singing his semi-cryptic Appalachian tunes on that Lollapalooza stage, he recalls, people may not have known exactly what he was up to, but they were willing to give him a listen. In one of his longer excursions into conversation, Oldham notes that "in each city we were pleasantly surprised that America isn't as homogeneous as you might be led to believe." Musically, he's probably got a point there. And it's groups such as Palace that make sure it's a point that doesn't get lost.
Palace plays at 11 p.m. Thursday, April 13, at Emo's Alternative Lounge. Clover opens. Admission free for adults; $5, minors. Call 523-8503 for info.