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Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy

by Mike Hotter on May 2, 2013

WHAT THE BROTHERS SANG

 

Ostensibly a tribute to the Everly Brothers, What the Brothers Sang finds compatriots and kindred spirits in the avant-folk scene, with Dawn McCarthy and Will Oldham delivering an album that should prove deeply enjoyable to fans of classic country pop, if not their usual indie-rock fan base. (As far as what constitutes classic, think late-’50s to mid-’70s, when the bulk of these songs were written.) The artists chose to forgo most of the Everlys’ biggest hits, instead showcasing lesser-known gems from writers like Kris Kristofferson (the richly sung album opener, “Breakdown”), John Denver, and King-Goffin. Four of the 13 songs were written by Don Everly, and they range impressively from deep-blue torch songs (“So Sad” and “It’s All Over”) to the trippy, dusted journeys of “Omaha” and “My Little Yellow Bird.”

The production, handled by Nashville engineer David Ferguson (who also worked on the latter-day Johnny Cash albums, as well as Oldham’s first Nashville foray, Greatest Palace Music), puts McCarthy’s and Oldham’s voices front and center, and both are at the top of their singing form—the Nashville context brings out the best in both. A bulwark of stellar Nashville players add scintillating performances (particularly John Mock on mandolin), while longtime Oldham guitar slingers Emmett Kelly and Matt Sweeney provide tasteful accompaniment throughout (dig the short but perfectly phrased solo by who I think is Sweeney on ”What Am I Living For”).

Oldham’s M.O. for many years seemed to be willful obfuscation, but he seems to be trying out a new forthrightness in recent years (see the 400-page interview published in book form, Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and what appears to be a regularly used Twitter account @signifyingwolf). This new and open approach is evident in this collection, a collaboration of close friends celebrating music they’ve loved since childhood—the love is palpable in the sounds and moods produced here.