Although the crop of indie-rock Appalachiana — bands that have turned to rustic, backporch forms of expression as a reflexive escape from the leviathan moshpit of the genre formerly known as alternative rock — is as rife with charlatans as any clique, Palace frontman Will Oldham is, more or less, the real thing. With his roots firmly planted in the bluegrass country of Kentucky (okay, he’s from a tony Louisville family, but at least he ain’t no Yankee or Golden State interloper) and a preternatural command of trad-folk source material, Oldham doesn’t just unplug, he tunes out the last several decades entirely, tapping into a sound (and vision) that harks back to the troubadours of another century.
With its brittle recording and acoustic, banjo-dominated instrumentation, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You is a surprisingly authentic re-creation of Depression-era country à la Jimmie Rodgers in his more profane moments or the Louvin Brothers: Oldham’s high, parched tenor is strongly reminiscent of Ira Louvin’s. (As if to further prove his rural mettle, Oldham even engages in a modern variation on chicken-stealing, neglecting to credit ’20s bluesman Washington Phillips as the author of “I Had a Good Mother and Father.”) But all of this isn’t mere stylistic affectation: he calls forth fire and brimstone in songs like “Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Playthings” and “(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit” with a sincerity that seems related to his 1987 role as a preacher in John Sayles’ Matewan. Oldham really elicits chills, however, when he crosses over to the dark side of the soul in songs like “Riding,” an epic first-person account of incestuous lust. A dark and troubling album of time spent at the crossroads.
The second album — which was self-titled upon its initial release, but soon renamed Days in the Wake — maintains much the same tone, but improves the sonic quality from field-recording level to mere lo-fi. Oldham’s songs resonate with an extraordinary sense of emptiness that has little to do with the facile angst of his peers. The clouds of gloom that loom during the opening seconds of “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” (which begins with the revelation “when you have no one, no one can hurt you”) abate ever-so-slightly when Oldham is able to fantasize his way off the corporeal plane (in “No More Workhorse Blues,” he envisions himself as a free-running thoroughbred). There’s a hint of artifice in the too-cute “I Send My Love to You,” but by the time Oldham is finished with the litany of death, disease and debauchery that festoons the other nine tracks, it’s long forgotten. Combining the contents of two Drag City singles, An Arrow Through the Bitch augments three originals (including the morbid “Trudy Dies”) with a cover of the Mekons’ “Horses” — yet another testament to Oldham’s abiding preoccupation with the ponies.
Oldham renamed the band for Hope (and, for the first time, identified his collaborators, who here include ex-Royal Trux drummer Rian Murphy and High Llamas/Stereolab keyboardist/guitarist Sean O’Hagan). While still spare and high-lonesome, the six-song EP is clearly a contemporary artifact — Oldham goes so far as to cover Leonard Cohen’s “Winter Lady” — which diminishes (but doesn’t eliminate) the metaphysical weirdness of his vision. The fuller tone of these songs, colored to a great degree by Liam Hayes’ Hammond organ, is reminiscent of Dylan’s initial Nashville forays — particularly the hypnotic “Agnes, Queen of Sorrow.”
Hayes makes his presence felt even more expansively on Viva Last Blues, which sees another change of name (this time in order to pay tribute to Palace Music, the sire of superstar racehorse Cigar). With more reliance on organ, piano and what sounds like analog synth (although none is credited), songs like “Tonight’s Decision (and Thereafter)” and “New Partner” advance a bit too far into country-rock territory, but there are enough moments of utter obsession (like the ecstatic “Old Jerusalem”) to satisfy unreconstructed Luddites.
Oldham returns to his roots on Arise Therefore, which could be a backporch recording if it weren’t primitive enough to make one doubt whether there was a porch there at all. The instrumental backing — mostly banjo, acoustic guitar and cardboard-box percussion — is most assuredly subordinate to the cracked-voice renderings of Pentecostal fury and sordid behavior. When he’s in Sunday-morning mood, he sounds positively angelic (as on the hymnlike “The Sun Highlights the Lack in Each”). But when he gets a taste of those stygian waters, he turns positively malignant (as in the disturbing medieval allegory “A Sucker’s Evening,” wherein he evenly proposes that a cohort help him subjugate a rival: “I’ll hold his arms, you fuck him/The fuck, he deserves it”). That internal struggle between God and the devil has been crucial to Southern music from Robert Johnson to Jerry Lee Lewis, and it’s clear that Will Oldham sees his soul as prime tug-o’-war material. Some copies of the album were packaged with a bonus EP containing 20 minutes of music performed by Palace/Oldham for the film The Broken Giant. That disc was subsequently issued on its own, first credited to Palace then (retitled Black/Rich Music) to Oldham.