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Gilt Edged Palace of Song
on 26 March 2004
This release promises much. Will Oldham is one of the greatest songwriters around but his aversion to contemporary production values has never exactly increased the prospect of his spellbinding tales about horses, religion, incest and copulating mountains featuring on mainstream radio. On "Greatest Palace Music" he records a selection of his older tracks with an accomplished coterie of session musicians.
It is interesting to see which albums dominate: namely "Palace Brothers" (also known as "Days in the Wake") and "Viva Last Blues" which contribute five and four songs respectively. Suitably enough, given the enterprise at hand, the former of these albums was effectively Oldham's "Pink Moon", almost exclusively featuring only himself on acoustic guitar and voice. By comparison, "Viva" is probably Oldham's most off-putting sounding release which did actually mar soms of the stunning writing.
The paradox is that Oldham's cracked voice and stark sound is an integral part of his attraction and, wonderful though "Greatest Palace Music" is in parts, at times the upbeat reworkings are disfiguring (especially "I Send My Love to You" and "I am a Cinematographer"). In fact the standout tracks are ones which do not deviate greatly from the originals - the gorgeous "Riding" and ominous "the Brute Choir" and "More Brother Rides". In these and other tracks, Oldham's voice is intertwined with a number of purer, frequently female backers to occasionally hypnotic effect.
The instrumental flourishes are, for the main, well chosen - piano, pedal steel, violin feature throughout and "Viva Ultra" pulls off the most difficult trick in the book - a saxophone solo that does not sound awful.
My only reservation is that Oldham to some degree falls between two stools: the beauty of some tracks is lost in the radical workover while others do not reveal any particular hidden qualities of which discerning listeners were previously aware. That said, "Greatest Palace Music" is a fine introduction to a singular talent and will hopefully inspire many newcomers to investigate his back catalogue