Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Bryce Dessner, Eighth Blackbird - When We Are Inhuman

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Bryce Dessner, Eighth Blackbird - When We Are Inhuman

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Julius Eastman and Will Oldham are kindred spirits. Self-styled provocateurs, they have positioned themselves on the outskirts of distinct traditions, pulling all manners of musical influence towards their outré stance. Eastman, who passed away in 1990 and whose work is experiencing a necessary revival, harnessed the vocabulary of minimalism for joyfully insurgent ends; Oldham’s songwriting regularly conjures a pantheon that Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America”.

These two visionaries collided at Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, and any distance between them was mediated by curator Bryce Dessner and ensemble Eighth Blackbird. On this album, woven between new arrangements of Oldham’s cryptic songs and Eastman’s iconic “Stay on It”, are several of Dessner’s “Murder Ballades”, works that tease out the homicidal strain of old folk tunes. In “Down in the Willow Garden,” a classic Appalachian tune, Oldham sings bleary-eyed atop harshly twanging timbres; “Underneath the Floorboards” takes inspiration from a recent murderous classic by Sufjan Stevens.

These explorations of violence are natural fits for Oldham, who has always examined the interstices between intimacy and cruelty. Four of his songs appear here in new, sumptuous arrangements by pianist Lisa Kaplan. In Cincinnati, Oldham compared working with Eighth Blackbird to becoming acquainted with a “haunted house”, continually returning to the same spot and observing how his fear was interlaced with a charged energy. The arrangements push Oldham’s voice to new heights, as in the ecstatic refrain of “New Partner” or the lithe polyrhythms of “Beast for Thee.” On “One with the Birds” and “When Thy Song,” shimmering introductions deploy avant-garde effects as a window into Oldham’s bleak, poignant sound world.

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