PRINT February 1995


the Palace Brothers

I FLEW TO NASHVILLE. It rained a lot in my hotel room. The room filled with rain as a lung fills with air. The rain looked like sweat on the body I hired to dance before me, which shimmied with a twang and left the way a river is said to crest. On my bed, I prayed, paced between the coils, and sang “No Man Is an Island” to myself as the waters rose, a song for which I know neither words nor tune. It was a tuneless singing I did as it rained in my room in Nashville, and I rewrote War and Peace between the storms.

Streets in Nashville were desolate, storefronts downtown desolate. Desolation seemed to be a theme. I had drinks in a revolving restaurant 28 stories up: 360° of overlook turning around. I didn’t go to the men’s room until the men’s room came to me.

Leaving Nashville on the evening flight, my steward looked like departure.

Will Oldham is the winsome kiddo responsible for Palace, a group that connects with country music only as a layover for a flight somewhere else entirely. Deputy of heartbreak, born a little over 20 years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, Oldham still thinks of things in terms of “distance from Louisville.” More than a group, Palace is a rotation consisting of Oldham and the do-si-do around him, which differs from session to session: his brothers Ned and Paul, various cohorts, and more recently musicians he has never met or performed with before—Brianna Corrigan of The Beautiful South, Sean O’Hagan of Stereolab. Oldham and his sometime accomplice Todd Brashear chose “Palace” after reading John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but there is nothing really down-home or agrarian about this: Palace-a.k.a. Palace Brothers and Palace Songs—conjures up something deluxe, aristocratic, and exiled.

The Louisville “scene,” someone told me, encompasses one large apartment building, but I don’t know if this is true. Wherever that scene is, Oldham has explored its gorgeous center, resulting in, well, the sound of Palace; Dianne Bellino’s haunting Leonora Carrington–like calligraphy on Palace’s sleeves (although the funky cursive scrawl of “PALACE” is Oldham’s own); the stunning blur on the cover of Palace Brothers, a portrait of Oldham shot by Sean Childress, another Louisville connection who deserves to be more widely known . Hope, 1994, is Palace’s third extended release, but don’t hear it as a culmination, because Palace’s two earlier full-length albums, There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You, 1993, and Palace Brothers, 1994, reveal nothing unsure. From any coast the ocean is still the ocean. Hope does have winter’s blinding loveliness, though, and the plushest orchestration of any Palace production yet.

The most interesting singers are charismatics. Oldham’s voice is as captivating as a snake handler, spooky and inexplicable as life itself, displaying riches usually considered embarrassing: flubs, tentative approaches, and mossy exhalations of breath—elements of Palace music because elemental to the every-day. Imagine someone singing by almost not singing at all, someone with fever as a voice coach, trained on covers of the Mekons, X, and sing-alongs with The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. Full of contradiction, gentle and scary, in the end Oldham sounds like no one but himself.

Some critics have suggested that Oldham’s voice is the most important contribution to Palace, but this under-estimates his songwriting gifts and the brazenness of the group’s sound machine. Like America, Palace revels in weird background—telephone noise, thunder, birds, horror whelps, and spacey blips. Room tone has never been so enthralling. Palace is often just Oldham’s voice and acoustic guitar and all the weird background. The addition of mellotron, banjo, lap steel, sometimes drums, even an outrageous electric guitar riff (as at the end of “Horses”) can be like finding sudden jungle orchids in the subtle tundra.

Palace achieves a vocal occurrence where cool little ditty meets palatial anthem. Experiments with tradition—lonely-heart waltzes, reels, ballads—that are rarely in any way traditional, Palace’s songs are miserere for now and nowhere. They can be goofy, but the goofiness turns poignant or demonic or something between. In his choice of tunes he did not pen, Oldham disconcerts any memory of the original. In Hope’s “Christmastime in the Mountains,” what at first seems a little nothing quickly turns into a melody for the entire climate of leaving: Oldham coos a lullaby and strums guitar while Liam Hayes picks a few notes and chords softly on the piano. The gestures fall quietly as snow, but the result is daunting as a blizzard.

The aubade is Oldham’s métier, indecision and waiting his bedmates. Oldham’s perspective is of someone who has seen it all , from quivering beginning to apocalypse, has not forgotten , and because of some trapdoor is going through it all again. From Hope’s “All Gone, All Gone ”: “If you think I should go, I really will go/Now the preparation’s made to lay all old things by/And when I say that I’ll go, I mean let one name drop away. ” It is not always so grim, but sometimes it is.

Palace Brothers harbors my favorite Palace song. Failed love’s black hole in a jewel box, “(Thou) Without Partner” begins, “Nighttime’s the right time to pull all the dimes from your pocket, nighttime’s the right time to climb on the rocket . . . to pull your shoulder out of its socket . . . to learn a new language.” The song shifts, and Oldham sings about “cosmonauts flying, cosmonauts dying.” How quickly and mysteriously things change. An untangling of bodies asleep allows an untangling of lives, and soon an absence as vast as the cosmos slips in from almost nowhere at all while you doze: “a sisterly severance, a cutting of cookies, adios fraternos.” It ends: “No more hospitality, no more hospitals at all/When was the first time you realized the next time would be the last time?”

Songs of the last will and testament, tests of will-power smoky with longing, times the heart has been cured to jerky, Will Oldham scores solitude. My phone call ended with him saying, “Loneliness implies helplessness, solitude implies fate.” As well as a difficult faith: “if God has teeth I have none,” he says in “Trudy Dies.” Humming Palace songs, no words come out of my mouth, pass my gummy gums or my eight rows of teeth, but there are incest and violets in my throat, brimstone in my throat, fiery tongues of all nations in my throat, charlatans and birds of prey in my throat, Siberia in my throat, tambourine’s moonshine in my throat, venery and a desert of waiting in my throat, and the thought of love is either an oasis or a mirage.

Bruce Hainley contributes regularly to Artforum.