A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Modern life can be hard and confusing at the best of times, what with collapsing economies, disappearing lifestyles, inequality surrounding us at every turn, too much media to consume and a diminishing amount of free time to devour it all. Modern life can be stressful, like being pulled by 1100 wild stallions to every corner of the globe, like an icy northern wind. Sometimes it can be a bit much to handle.
Of course, there’s a lot of great things about living in the NOW, as well – like the interconnections you’re reading this through, the continual and pervasive discourse, the elevation of great taste, the dissolution of those very inequalities mentioned above. There’s a lot of great things about living right now, or living in general, which can be easy to overlook in the face of so much anger and negativity. Sometimes we just need to be reminded to look for the good.
Have you ever daydreamed about having Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as yr own private life coach and cheerleader? If you are one of these very specific dreamers, you’re in luck, with the publishing of Epic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties on the ever expansive Drag City Records.
Will Oldham likely needs no introduction, if you’ve followed underground music for the past 2 decades. Bitchin’ Bajas, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure, is an exploratory sonic meditation from Chicago’s Cooper Crain, who daylights as the guitarist in one of our New Wave psych faves, Cave. Over the span of 6 years and copious releases on skads of labels, several other members of Cave have also joined the fray, as well as some other luminaries of the psych underground. Bitchin’ Bajas untether from Cave’s usual rhythmic kosmische chug to work in loose, evolving loops, like the virulent mutant children of Steve Reich and Lou Reed. Like other New Wave psych psychonauts like the now defunct Emeralds and their constellation of side projects, they’re helping to redefine what is possible in psychedelic music, improvisation, by incorporating future technologies into loose, sprawling jam scenarios.
Will Oldham, ne Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and a million other monikers, first came together with Chicago’s Bitchin’ Bajas last year, with a cover of “Pretty Saro” on the Shirley Collins tribute record Shirley Inspired. That track found Oldham doing his usual method acting, embodying a Civil War soldier, over a dreamy sustained organ drone. There must’ve been some magic in that recording session, as they’ve reconvened to pull off a full length.
Epic Jammers & Fortunate Little Ditties is 9 tracks of pure, unbridled optimism, as Will Oldham recites what sound like sunny cookie fortunes over Bitchin’ Bajas bedrock of twanging acoustic instruments, pinned-down organs, and sundry other shifting loops.
Album opener “May Life Throw You A Pleasant Curve” sets the mood, with mellow rainbow arpeggios meeting subtle but singable acoustic guitar, with Oldham keening gently and sweetly as sugared silk. I can’t recall the last time Bonnie Prince Billy sounded so unadulteratedly beatific, without the usual looming shadows and specters. The music floats along like a lazy current, with a flute falling like a leaf upon the river, only to ebb away unnoticed.
Organic evolution is the name of the game, with Epic Jammers, which is rather impressive given the seemingly technological origin of some of these sounds. It’s unclear how much of this music is hand-played, but if the press photo is any indication, keyboards and pedals were employed, along with traditional ritualistic folk instruments, Balinese gamelan, zithers, dulcimers, other unnamed percussive and stringed instruments. This makes for a peculiar ancient futuristic air about these recordings, like drum circles on the Rings Of Saturn, or folk songs in the vacuum of space.
More evidence of the atavistic return, the rising paganism. And what fruits it is yielding!
The biggest downside of much of the underground/indie/experimental music of the 2000s was the reliance upon digital loops, particularly looper pedals, but also via DAWs like Ableton, and the ubiquitous synth/sequencer workouts. While those tools have their own unique charms, digital loops will repeat infinitely, for as the long as the power holds out, without ever changing or degrading. It approximates a mentally compelling digital eternity, like the afterlife of GIFs, but it is also entirely unrealistic, being impossible to recreate in nature. I feel like this freaks our nervous systems out a bit, a la The Uncanny Valley. Loops also tend to dominate jam sessions. Either you play in key and at that tempo, or yr out. Digital loops are tyrannical.
We are starting to see a different technique, however, with humans interfacing with their technology, in both future forms, as well as retroactive electronic moves. It’s as if Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Mark McGuire put a bit of their DNA in a test tube, and created an alien hybrid. As a social commentary, this Fourth World music indicates a healthier integration between human and technology, that we are returning to employing our tools towards the task of making something unique and personal.
Considering Cooper Crain’s participation in another of our recent loopy favorites, Circuit Des Yeux, he stands as one of the psychedelic underground’s Musicians To Keep An Ear On. As far as Will Oldham, it’s nice to hear him stretching out and letting loose, stretching out and experimenting. I haven’t heard as successful of an experiment from him since The Boxhead Ensemble, which just reminds me to return to his rich back catalog and dig for treasures.
Grab yrself a little slice of Epic Jammers & Fortunate Little Ditties for when yr feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, and let BPB & BB rub your shoulders and tell you it’ll be okay.
Epic Jammers & Fortunate Little Ditties is out now on Drag City!
Get Physical//Best Buy/