Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Wilco

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Wilco

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Album: Summer In The Southeast
Label: Sea Note
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Wilco

Album: Kicking Television
Label: Nonesuch

Some people missed the point of last year's Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music album, which had Will Oldham reinterpreting songs from his proto-alt-country Palace era with a band of veteran Nashville session men. Those who prefer scuffed-up country music assumed Oldham had made some kind of elaborate parody, but his real intention was to pay homage to the sound and mood of the C&W radio of his youth. The polished, mass-market-friendly approach to country is as much a part of American roots music as any Folkways field recording, and those who can't hear the continuity between artists like Charlie Rich and Oldham either aren't paying attention, or are so hung up on surfaces that they can't tell what's underneath.

A year later, Oldham gives the primitives what they prefer on Summer In The Southeast, a Bonnie "Prince" Billy live album that once again digs into his back catalog, this time with the aid of a crunchy rock band. The set-list favors more recent material, but guitarists Matt Sweeney, David Bird, and Pink Nasty push Oldham to sing louder and more open than he has in a while, and the results convert the spooky hush of songs like "Master And Everyone" and "Break Of Day" into a forceful clatter, and makes songs of joy like "I Send My Love To You" sound almost sarcastic. (There's some Allman Brothers in there too, but don't tell the snobs.) It'd be a mistake to call Summer In The Southeast a retreat. Like Greatest Palace Music, the new album demonstrates how Oldham's songs can stand up to varied interpretations, even if he's the one doing the interpreting. Oldham's on his way to assembling one of the most formidable catalogs in recent rock history, full of bare, scarred songs of need. On Summer In The Southeast, that need becomes more rapacious.

Though it was fairly acclaimed, Wilco's A Ghost Is Born eluded some people. Following the excessively fussy and brilliantly flawed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy made a conscious effort to loosen up his sound, first on the jammy Loose Fur side project and then on the shambling, often frightening Ghost. Those who disliked (or didn't hear) the former had some trouble with the latter, but the album was well in line with Tweedy's evolution from alt-country and Beach Boys copycat to true American original.

The evolution continues on Kicking Television, a stellar double-disc live album that applies A Ghost Is Born's organic, spontaneous approach to a set of recent Wilco songs. The further back the band reaches, the less successful the interpretations are. The lovely "A Shot In The Arm" becomes a little too raw, while Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's ungainly "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" acquires a new shapeliness, and that album's impressionistic "Radio Cure" and "Ashes Of American Flags" acquire a clearer context. But while it's no surprise that the YHF songs sound better live, it's surprising how much better Ghost songs like "Company In My Back" and "The Late Greats" sound with the addition of some synthesizer accents and thicker guitars. One of Kicking Television's many highlights is Ghost's "Handshake Drugs," which starts as hands-in-the-air singalong and builds to a extended wail, following the map of Tweedy's career so far.