This photo here is the type of shit that I like to see; Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) manning a harmonium, while sitting on the floor with the synth wielding members of Chicago spatial drone outfit, Bitchin’ Bajas. Other promotional photos connected to their upcoming collaborative full-length release, Epic Jammers & Fortunate Little Ditties, are similar, albeit with slight variations — Bonny is gripping an acoustic guitar in one, for example. In a world where the idea of artists coming together for a project can often conjure up visions of sterile high-end recording studios, one hand pressed against a headphone in a vocal booth, and cheesy photo shoots, it’s always nice to see something a bit more authentic; a scenario where musicians come together out of genuine interest in what could be accomplished sonically if they merged their respective skills and do so organically in a living room, rather than beginning with the idea of publicity, hype, or even just releasing an album together, and then working backward.
Does it seem a little out of place for Louisville‘s resident troubadour to be submerging his brand of consistently heartfelt pastoral beauty into the pulsating, kaleidoscopic, shimmering electronic mana lagoon of this synthy trio? Perhaps. While Billy is well known for utilizing his trademark voice and gentle melodies to penetrate the listener at a more emotional core, the Bajas vibrate on the senses, working the frequencies like a psychedelic body high. I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised by the news, myself, but if you really think about it, it’s honestly not that much of a stretch. In 2006, Oldham teamed up with jazzy/electronic Chicago post-rockers, Tortoise, to release an ambitious album of covers titled, The Brave And The Bold. Among the tracks on that effort was a bizarrely successful reworking of Elton John‘s “Daniel” that blended an icy mechanical loop with airy sustained tones and rounded it all off with Bonnie‘s quivering vocals coasting throughout — it was like the sonic equivalent of a paralyzed automaton flat on its back after being struck with an ice-pick, its soul escaping, whirling out through the punctures in its chest and into the frosty tundra air. It’s impossible not to acknowledge Oldham‘s prolificity, but perhaps it’s his unmistakable voice, or some other easily identifiable quality about the man, that can cause one to overlook how experimental he has always been. It’s hard to think of another musician, off the top of my head, who I could expect to see play the exact same song on 3 different occasions in the same day and have them sound completely different, each time; none of them like the album, yet all stunning and flawless in their own way. He’s always experimented with variations of his tracks, from solo acoustic efforts to lush full band arrangements, even releasing albums of reimaginings of songs, years after they already appeared on earlier releases. Oldham seems quite aware that, as an artist who is constantly creating, new blood can help prompt him to move in new directions and avoid him from becoming overly comfortable — remember, Angel Olsen began singing with him, before she was ever known for her solo work. From work with The Cairo Gang to his collaborations with Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan), he’s often welcomed the influence of others. When I interviewed David Berman (Silver Jews) in 2009, I asked about the idea of collaboration, even mentioning the weird one-off 7-inch he released with Oldham. He responded that he didn’t think that he would “collaborate on art again,” but that “it’s a good thing for young people.” I’m quite pleased that Oldham‘s perspective has differed.
I first heard of Bitchin Bajas back in 2011, while attended a CAVE concert that found the propulsive krautrock-esque Windy Cindy boys playing a mid-lineup slot at a local dive here in Seattle. I had heard an advanced copy of Neverendless, their first full-length for the Drag City label, and it made me an instant a fan. While purchasing a couple of albums from their merch booth, I asked about the lone Bitchin Bajas release, to which the gent manning the table explained that it was his side project with Cooper (guitar, keys) of CAVE. I should have picked that album up right then with the rest of them. Similar to the expansive sound of their sister outfit, complete with extended buildups and visceral soundscapes, Bajas differentiate themselves by doing so without the motorik drumming that roots and directs CAVE so effectively, opting to gently hover and elevate off into atmosphere. I believe that they were a duo at the time and, while it was clear to me that CAVE was really tackling some interesting sounds that spoke to me as an individual, there was no particular indication that either of these outfits would gain much of a wider following. Fortunately for everyone, I’m glad they have achieved a much wider recognition that I had anticipate; not every group has been so lucky.
From what I’ve seen and read, Epic Jammers & Fortunate Little Ditties, appears to be a collaboration in the truest sense with the artists bouncing ideas off of each other organically and exploring territories of improvisation. And while they still may seem like an unlikely pairing, the first single for the new project, “Your Hard Work Is About To Pay Off. Keep On Keeping On.” is a reminder of one similarity that both of them share, and that’s the ability to really stretch and suspend time, spinning a sonic chrysalis, of sorts, around the listener and laying them gently down into to the current to be carried along, gently advancing them forward. Sometimes it’s all willows and peaceful lilypads, while other times there are eels radiating with their electric charge and circling beneath. These waters seem to contain both.
Upcoming Bitchin Bajas & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Shows:
3/15-3/19 at Tremor Festival in Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal
3/22-3/24 at Cafe Oto in London, England