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Starting Point

Viva Last Blues—9

 

Released: 1995

1) More Brother Rides  2) Viva Ultra  3) The Brute Choir  4) The Mountain Low  5) Tonight's Decision (And Hereafter)  6) Work Hard/Play Hard  7) New Partner  8) Cat's Blues  9) We All, Us There, Will Ride  10) Old Jerusalem

 

At the release of “Viva Last Blues,” former actor Will Oldham had been recording since 1992 under various names including Palace, Palace Songs, and Palace Brothers.  Exactly why he changed his stage name so often was, and still is a mystery; a riddle that will remain unsolved as long as Oldham keeps the media away from uncovering his background.  I’m not sure how he has done it, but even in this age of information and tabloids, there is virtually nothing about his life to be found.  Changing his stage name so often, not letting anyone in on his past, writing songs sounding like they came directly from the Appalachian Mountains… Oldham’s approach before this album was to downgrade everything and present his music with no tricks and no thrills…“just for me… let the music speak for itself.”

 

However, on “Viva Last Blues,” his third full length LP, he does change things up.  Besides a new name, Palace Music, the album actually features a band for the first time in his career.  There is piano, organ, drums, bass, lead electric guitar, and background singing on most of the tracks.  And, to top that all off, this album was recorded by the hot man of the moment—Pixies, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey producer Steve Albini.  The overall atmosphere Oldham and Albini create for “Viva Last Blues” is hard to describe, but somehow the cover art illustrates it perfectly.  That strange walking cheetah/hyena thing is undeniably interesting, and even somewhat cuddly, like the music it portrays.  But you know, despite its cool vibe, it is absolutely deadly and could easily rip you to shreds if you let it.  That feeling of familiar, bottled up danger suits the album well…       

 

The stirring opener, “More Brother Rides,” is moody as hell: deliberate and swampy, with a piano-based mean groove.  Oldham’s strange voice cracks and flattens in all the wrong places; mistakes that only make the music seem more real.  The lyrics deal with guys gathering around remembering, drinking, and just letting off steam before heading back to work.  But the images Oldham paints make the guys seem like twenty-somethings during the Great Depression… questioning their purpose.  The band sounds like they just met, each member playing separate little licks that all mesh together to make a great, harrowing noise.  If you don’t like this first tune, you might as well stop right there…

 

Viva Ultra” is much slower, but just as temperamental.  The drums and bass transform this would-be hollow song of regret into a deep, menacing ballad about being stuck in a doomed relationship.  The mood is just so overwhelmingly grimy.  And “The Brute Choir” doesn’t let you clean yourself, as it keeps that same murkiness and relationship lyrics (this time dealing with the guilt felt after a breakup).  The background harmony vocals are off key and at times don’t even sing the same lines as Oldham, but they work.  In the coda, though, the general feeling briefly transforms, sounding hopeful, giving this otherwise gloomy tune some needed light.  And that light continues with the love song “The Mountain Low.”  This tune begins absolutely pleasantly, with strumming, and a happy guitar, but that is all shocked away as Oldham opens with the calmly sung “If I could fuck a mountain, Lord, I would fuck a mountain, And I'd do it with a woman in the valley.”  The song is a fine little country mid-tempo ballad, but doesn’t really standout as being memorable aside from the first lines (a clever trick actually). 

 

Oldham follows the most genteel track on the album with its most desperate, “Tonight’s Decision (And Hereafter).”  Being the longest of the album, this is obviously supposed to be the centerpiece, and it brings back the eeriness of the first few offerings.  Without a doubt, the song is dreary and a little dull, but filled with emotion.  I’m not certain what type of emotion, or whom it is directed at, but there is a calm, powerful passion behind the contained sloppiness.  It won’t jump out at you as being amazing, but it is the kind of song that creeps into your conscience…and it will stay there until you figure out what it is about.  I’m still trying to get it to leave.

 

Work Hard/Play Hard” is much easier to swallow, with its great Neil Young sounding happy rock.  The smiling chorus is impossible not to sing along with and this is probably the most assessable, should-have-been-hit-song, of Oldham’s career.  The user-friendliness continues with “New Partner.”  This is a charming slide guitar sponsored love ballad, featuring lyrics about moving on.  The tune though, is just so country sweet, you can’t help but sing along, while the organ fills and off-key background vocals add to the sentiment.  Although this might be a little wimpier than the rest of the album, it is a charming, catchy song.  Cat’s Blues” instantly cancels the charm… This is a three-minute strutting punk song (well punk done in Oldham’s western, backwoods style).  It’s dark and foreboding, but tuneful, although it ends just as you think it is going to launch into an end-all raunchy guitar solo. 

 

Ridiculously sequenced, “We All, Us There, Will Ride” is the most gentle, swaying song on the album.  It shares its melody with the chorus of “New Partner,” but that’s the best part of that song, so I guess I can’t complain.  In fact, this is a gorgeous little dribble of a tune, as pleasant and inviting as Oldham has ever done.  Old Jerusalem” closes the album with a haunting, two-minute goth/folk winner.  It is nothing more than Oldham picking his way through an acoustic run, and meekly singing lyrics…but the performance is holding back, preventative… almost as if the message, although important, was just too personal to let out, and that pent up warning is what makes the tune succeed.

 

Viva Last Blues” represents one of Will Oldham’s most impressive efforts, and because it demonstrates virtually all phases of his future and past discography, it is an excellent starting point.  I hate sentences like this, but “Viva Last Blues” is “Exile On Main Street” if Main Street were the name of the lone road that runs through Hicksville, Kentucky.  There are so many different emotions and subtle style changes on this album, it is impossible to classify: folk, goth, country, rock…all apply and each is done with just the right amount of sloppiness.  But through all the dim and muck, it is clear that Will Oldham is a powerful songwriter capable of transcending genres, and this album is easily one of the best of the 1990s.

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