Will Oldham's last Bonnie "Prince" Billy record, 2003's Master and Everyone, was one of the strongest sets of material he's ever come up with. So, on paper at least, the premise of his new one—taking the best songs from the Palace records he made in the 90s and recutting them as polished country tracks using first-call Nashville session players—sounded unambitious at best. But Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music (Drag City) turns out to be positively revelatory. The plush new arrangements bring out unexpected beauty that had lain hidden in the stark, withholding original versions; once-difficult songs like "Agnes, Queen of Sorrow" and "I Am a Cinematographer" are reborn here as lost Music City classics. And Oldham's singing rises to the level of the accompaniment; as charming as his usual faux-naive croak can be, it's a pleasure to hear him really hit the notes. I had a harder time warming up to Joanna Newsom. My first few times through the early-twentysomething songwriter's gorgeous new album, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City), I couldn't get past her voice—she sings like a 12-year-old girl going through a heavy Bjork phase. But now I'd say it's one of the most arresting instruments I've heard in years: its preadolescent timbre is a disconcerting match for her sophisticated presence and phrasing. Newsom often accompanies herself on the harp, setting her skirling, looping melodies against dense chords or stately counterpoint; she also plays acoustic piano, Wurlitzer, and harpsichord. All three shows are all-ages. Thursday, April 15, 8 PM, Open End Gallery, 2000 W. Fulton (sold-out); Friday, April 16, 7 and 11 PM, Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie; 773-276-3600 or 800-594-8499. Newsom also plays a free in-store Saturday, April 17, at 2 PM at Reckless Records, 1532 N. Milwaukee; 773-235-3727.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Wiley Balls, Noah Georgeson.