Sevens :: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy w/ Tortoise – Thunder Road

(Sevens, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, pays tribute to the art of the individual song.)

In January of 2006, Will Oldham, under his working guise of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, released a collaborative ten track covers album with the comparatively abrasive post-rock quintet Tortoise. They called it The Brave And The Bold. I loved the project from the get-go, but seemed to be in the minority as its release was met with little fanfare and/or praise. Not to mention outright disdain from a portion of longtime Palace fans. It would be easy to say ‘fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke,’ but that would miss the point entirely. As with everything Oldham has covered over the years, you get the inherent sense that he respects the work, whatever it may be, from the R. Kelly and Danzig covers to glossy mainstream pop hits.

Comprised of ten tracks, the collection spans re-workings of Richard Thompson, Elton John, the Minutemen, Devo, and, notably, Bruce Springsteen—who I’ll get to in a bit. Many of the offerings are unrecognizable from that of the original intent; broad reinterpretations using the scarcest trace elements of the source material. This treatment, not unlike Mark Kozelek’s own method of tearing source material down to its skeletal frame before building it back from the ground up, lends an altogether new presence to many of the songs. In Oldham and Tortoise’s hands, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Daniel,” loses the 70s schlock, transformed into an outright spooky paean of…something.

For Springsteen devotees, the “Thunder Road” cover may be the most jarring of the bunch in terms of its complete removal from any semblance of the Boss’s original. No anthemic fist-pumping here. In its stead we find a slightly proggy dirge—a lament. The ‘fight’ found in the original is nowhere to be heard; the song’s lyrics themselves now reek of a darkness, a harbinger of dread. So, depending on what you look for in a cover, the version succeeds in its intent in re-defining what, until then, seemed so incredibly defined.

Elsewhere: In related news Twenty-Four Bit/Consequence of Sound have the details on Oldham’s new band, the Babblers, that just kicked off their tour (they were in Athens, GA last night). The band is reportedly covering songs from Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Kraus’ 1979 album Babble. The short run focuses primarily on the Southeast with a gig up the seaboard to NYC.

MP3: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy w/ Tortoise :: Thunder Road

15 thoughts on “Sevens :: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy w/ Tortoise – Thunder Road

  1. Well stated. As a fan of both Bonnie and Tortoise, I think you could say that their deconstruction experiment included themselves. It was as if the two entities were rebuilding their own inclinations as well. Thanks for your thoughts on one of my favorite records of recent.

  2. I admit it: I didn’t read your post at first, just went straight for the song. And even though I’m a big Springsteen fan, I didn’t make the connection when I saw the title. After about half a minute I thought: these lyrics seem really familiar. Then I looked at the title again. Then I read your post. Then I listened to the song another 20 or 30 times.
    I love what they’ve done with it. I feel like they’ve peeled off the glossy, strong outer layer and revealed the vulnerability that has always been there. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. I discovered this randomly a couple of months ago. “Thunder Road” is my favourite song, but I adore this cover on its own terms – perhaps, precisely because it is so different.

  4. I’m usually open to reinterpretations of Bruce’s work, being a big fan, however I’m having a lot of trouble opening up to this one, even trying to be as objective as I possibly can.

  5. yea…i don’t know the springsteen song but to me this song just sounds like an unknown 90’s alt rock band.

  6. Can’t believe it’s been almost five years since this came out. I’ve always been shocked at how divisive this record and specifically this track were with folks. You can see it in this comment section.

    I’ve always wondered if the fact that it came out on Overcoat limited the exposure to existing Tortoise/Will Oldham fans who were used to getting their fix from Drag City & Thrill Jockey. At the time, it should’ve been the biggest record going, but it seemed to disappear off the map almost instantly. Weird stuff I’ll never understand. Or maybe it’s just because they did a Lungfish cover.

    Side note: my friend danced with his mother at his wedding to this song. Pretty intense scene.

  7. I think the record on the whole is pretty uneven. However, I absolutely love the version of “Daniel.” I think thematically it fits in very well with some of Olham’s best work. He has always been able to address the loving bond between brothers or male friends in a way that is so powerful (see “I See a Darkness”) and quite rare. Certainly worth a listen.

  8. In concert, Springsteen has often re-invented “Thunder Road”–most notably as a lament, the last lines especially sad: These kids are going nowhere. This really nice cover is almost cheery in comparison to Springsteen’s acoustic elegy versions.

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