“Summer In the Southeast” is an audio document of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s (née William Oldham) seasonal tour of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.
His detour in the South is reflected in the album’s sound: Oldham’s usual lo-fi folk aesthetic is dropped in favor of a Skynrydesque Southern-rawk.
The album’s harder sound is also due to Matt Sweeney’s guitars: the last time Oldham and Sweeney collaborated, as the alt-country power-duo “Superwolf,” the results were similarly heavy.
Though you wouldn’t expect it, this harder sound really enhances Oldham’s vocal performance: he forsakes the irritating mumble-whisper delivery of albums past for throatier, fuller vocalizations. As a result, this is one of the few albums in which all of Oldham’s cryptic lyrics are intelligible.
And Oldham is some kind of lyricist: his language marries the lovelorn yearning of Leonard Cohen to the incantatory power of Neil Young. On the album’s stand out track, “I See a Darkness.” Oldham writes: “And you know how much I love you/Is a hope the you will somehow/save me from this darkness.”
The track selection is equitably divided throughout Oldham’s solo career, and it includes Superwolf songs. Fans who favor Oldham’s pre-“Master and Everyone” work will be disappointed to learn “Summer” possesses as many “Greatest Palace Music” cuts as “Ease Down the Road” songs.
Not to worry, even Oldham’s weaker material plays stronger live. “Death to Everyone” sounds canned and petulant in the studio version, but on “Summer” Sweeney fleshes out the song’s anemic melody with a menacing electric guitar riff, giving the track much-needed heft. Oldham is a formidable talent, but he is never better than when surrounded by great collaborators.
Likewise, the honk-tonk pastiche of “I Send My Love to You” becomes an exhilarating rave-up thanks to Ryder McNair’s unhinged keyboarding. McNair is also responsible for the gospel-inspired improvisations on “Summer”: his wailing organ on “I See a Darkness” wouldn’t be out of place in a Baptist church on Sunday morning.
Sadly, Oldham and company’s amazing performances are a little less compelling than they might be because of “Summer”’s threadbare production values. Unintended instrument distortion, a persistent hiss, and echoing vocals all evidence that these recordings were made in hole-in-the-wall clubs with lousy sound systems.
Some will say that this “dirty” production is an integral part of the Oldham experience: it accurately represents the experience of watching a show in tiny, smoke-filled, honk-tonk. But when musicianship of this caliber is on display, clarity is preferable to authenticity.
Authenticity isn’t something Oldham has to worry about any longer. “Summer” proves that his sound can hold up in the proving ground of country music: the southeast. Oldham can now truly lay claim to the musical lineage as Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams. What a difference one summer can make.
—Staff Writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Summer in the Southeast
Bonnie "Prince" Billy