Sharps & Flats

"Guarapero: Lost Blues 2" collects Will Oldham's stream-of-consciousness rants and odd tales of sexual dysfunction.

Published February 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

If the souls and voices of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Syd Barrett were fused into one body, what came out would probably sound very much like Will Oldham, a deeply demented, modern-day Appalachian troubadour who was a teen actor before doing a semester at Brown and having a nervous breakdown in Cape Cod, Mass. Oldham is still a bit off. In seven years, with essentially the same lineups, he has released records as Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music and plain-old Palace. Sometimes he tours under the handle Bonnie Billy.

"Lost Blues 2," his third full-length release under his own name, is characteristically odd. The songs run from a lurching, acoustic sing-along rendition of AC/DC's "Big Balls," to a Casio-accompanied recitation of D.H. Lawrence's "The Risen Lord," to what has become signature stream-of-consciousness rantings ("The Spider's Dude Is Often There") and twisted tales of sexual dysfunction ("Boy, Have You Cum"). Throughout it all is Oldham's endlessly vulnerable voice, a quivering falsetto, a nakedly earnest instrument that makes Neil Young's whine sound like a polished gem.

Oldham, and Palace Brothers, emerged from Louisville, Ky., in the early 1990s, seemingly a fully formed indie-rock legend. With fractured, frazzled violins, off-kilter accordions, perpetually out-of-tune guitars and a voice that can't seem to make it through a verse without cracking, Oldham sounded as if he had risen from the Bluegrass State after a decadeslong Rip Van Winkle slumber. Adding to the mystique is a curious set of bona fides, including his brief acting career: In 1987, when he was 16, Oldham appeared as a child preacher in John Sayles' "Matewan," a film about an Appalachian mining community. By the time he was in his early 20s, Oldham had sworn off acting, focusing instead on unraveling tales of incest, murder and more unmitigated misery. "The Ohio River Boat Song," his first single, offered a hint of the kind of twisted themes that would follow. In it, a man rows home to spend another futile night with his unfaithful wife.

"Lost Blues 2" is made up of songs that Oldham fans will, for the most part, be familiar with. There's "Drinking Woman," an old war horse by Oldham standards, and already fading cuts like "Gezundheit," a Dylanesque parable. There are two cuts from the Steve Albini-produced "Guarapero" -- "Sugarcane Juice Drinker" and "Call Me a Liar" -- veritable rockers for the Oldham canon, with electric guitars (albeit muted ones for the normally full-throttle Albini) and guests like the Dirty Three's Mick Turner and Gastr del Sol's David Grubbs.

On "Patience," a hushed solo number with Oldham accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he murmurs about how he "wasn't born to tell the truth," following that with "I wasn't born to sleep with Ruth." At least half of that line is a lie. Oldham was born to tell the truth, a perverse version of it that's deeply unsettling and hopelessly enthralling.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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