Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Tortoise

The Brave and the Bold

(Overcoat; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 8 February 2007

One of my pet peeves is the notion that an artist who doesn’t write their own material is inherently disposable -- or, at any rate, inferior to those who do. I usually don’t put much stock in the concept of “rockism,” but this clearly stems from the Beatles/Superman model/myth that forced the idea of bands to write their own songs and solely their own songs (never mind that this band began life as a first-rate bar cover band, and could continue to be whenever they felt like it). What garbage; imagine if Laurence Olivier was sneered at because the words in his mouth were those of Shakespeare. Interpreting other’s work is an excellent way for an artist to gain their own sure footing; listen to Miles Davis’ work after his stunning version of Mingus’ ”Round Midnight.” It single handedly changed the way people ever heard that song again, the public’s perception of his talent, and the idea of how jazz ballads could (and would) be played again. The Byrds recorded the definitive version of several Dylan songs (how about Hendrix's "Watchtower," while we're at it), stamping their identity all over them and bringing previously unimagined textures from his work.

I am militantly pro-cover, but I have my limits. Covering that classic-rock anthem for the big summer blockbuster? Trotting out some well-worn favorites for your greatest-hits package? I’m scribbling polemics into my notebook before I’ve even heard it. I’d rather listen to a hundred high school bands run through shaky, rote renditions of “Last Nite” than endure that, because at least the former is music as work. Sure, that’s practice, and practice isn’t art, but it is work. I wholly advocate music as work (even if I don’t advocate listening to it). What I’m against is music as commerce, people that lack imagination but want to ride the gravy train with a bankable number. That shit has to go. So, for the most part, do cover albums.

Cover albums get my goat because they all fall into three categories. First is their explicit purpose as stocking-stuffer, or contractual obligation, or any shameless cash cow that ties in with the above paragraph. Then there’s the cover album as novelty concept -- see Me First and the Gimme Gimmes doing ironical “punk” versions of corny eighties or seventies songs. The last category finds the Respected Songwriter (yes, proper nouns) paying homage of his/her favorite songs, throwing out some comparably obscure numbers in the process. This final one avoids sweeping condemnation because sincerity goes a long way, but even the ones I find worthwhile (Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook) seldom reward repeated listening, even if they do shine a light on the songs or the artist in question. This failure usually comes from being a self conscious “cover album” -- reinterpretation as the idea itself rather than a vehicle for one. (The one exception I can immediately think of is Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.)

The Brave and the Bold, in some ways, fits comfortably into the third category. Between them, Tortoise and Will Oldham have at least five of the best records made in the last ten years. Most of it culls fairly excellent songs: The Minutemen’s “It’s Expected I’m Gone,” BPM giant Milton Nascimento’s “Cravo E Canela,” the mighty “The Calvary Cross” from the estimable Richard Thompson catalogue. But there are also completely wtf choices. “Thunder Road?” Elton John’s big weeper, “Daniel?” Fucking “Pancho?” Another contentious point is that the sole purpose for this union is for covers, so it becomes difficult to determine how these songs benefited from their vision, or in what direction the material points, since by all reports this is a one-off deal.

By my reckoning, there are three parts to the record, each identifiable by modes of collaboration. The first is Bonnie “Prince” Billy singing for Tortoise. The second is an evident equal collaboration with all six members. The third one is Tortoise backing up Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Of these, the last one fares the best. The avatars of post-rock show and admirable admirable on these, the album’s last three songs. “(Some Say) I Got Devil” is presented as a minor dirge, sounding not dissimilar from an outtake from I See a Darkness. It’s a fitting song in his hands, I think, with a line like “though I’d like to tell you exactly how I’m feeling/somehow the music hides it and conceals it all.” “The Calvary Cross” is somewhat unsurprisingly the best song here, sounding like Palace’s take on the Mekons’ “Horses.” There’s a nice swing on this song, which is absent from the rest of the album, but not in its slowed down, ringing arrangement, which characterizes most of The Brave and The Bold.

Tortoise get four songs, continuing in the kind of lush melodicism that marked their last record. Perhaps this explains their frankly baffling choice of “Daniel.” Some studio treatment on the snare drum’s echo gives it a shuffling, trip-hop feel, and the arrangement is suitably spacey. Oldham, who holds himself in check throughout, breaks into character here. His voice breaks and he blows many of the notes. Surely he can’t be reading this much into Bernie Taupin’s lyric (must be the clouds in his eyes, nyuk nyuk). Still, his voice is wrapped in so much echo that even at his most abrasive, he floats. As a matter of fact, everything they do here floats. The album begins with a nice trot (which proves to be disingenuous) with the full and pulsating “Cravo E Canella,” and noise opens and permeates their version of “It’s Expected I’m Gone.” But, noise aside, this too is given a languid, allegro tempo and is, for all intents and purposes, left alone musically from its original. The only true success here is “Thunder Road,” transformed into an Ennio Morricone melodrama; minor key, Theremin and down tempo all accounted for.

The collective’s songs sandwich a ridiculously straight-forward reading of the schmaltzy neo-countrypolitan touchstone, “Pancho.” Oldham tries to imbue this song with a sense of longing and regret (which is sort of lying underneath the surface of Don Williams’ parent version, in a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of way), but there’s no rescuing lines like “Pancho, don’t you love me no more? / To me your friendship means more.” (Though, the pseudo flamenco guitar line is bathed in so much echo it sounds like Jonny Greenwood guests on the track.) That leaves “Love is Love,” which finds them trying on Tortoise’s kraut rock leanings and coming off as an early Wax Trax! side instead, and their somewhat deconstructionist take on Devo’s “That’s Pep,” which sounds as if two guitarists are playing with a second delay between them.

The Brave and the Bold is an awkward, lumbering affair, of passing interest to fans of the artists’ work and no one else. As one from that camp, I can tell you even that interest is short lived. While the scope of their musical vocabulary is admirable, it also fails to avoid the trap of the “cover album” as the end-goal rather than drawing inspiration from the original material itself. This record exists purely as a curiosity, and as such must ultimately be dismissed.