Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Dawn McCarthy – “What the Brothers Sang”
What the Brothers Sang is a collection of Everly Brothers songs covered by singer-songwriter-actor Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Dawn McCarthy, singer of the band Faun Fables. The brothers Everly are the quintessential pop duo of the ‘50s, their popular songs are sticky-sweet-rot-your-teeth candy that you might hear on a golden oldies radio station. The songs on this album explore a range of country-folk that dabbles in a background tune you may hear wafting from the kitchen as you pour yourself a glass of lemonade and find a seat on your front porch on a balmy summer day, to a somber tune you may hear in the bar you visit down the street while drinking whiskey. You certainly don’t hear that kind of range from the originals (which I sought out and found about half of them on Spotify). Hands down, if you are a Bonnie “Prince” Billy fan, you’ll enjoy this album; and if you’re an Everly Brothers fan you will certainly appreciate these thoughtful dedications to the original tunes.
Oldham and McCarthy have collaborated before, and when you hear their voices together you know that it’s a good thing when these two get together. Their voices are equally matched in timber and harmony, and they compliment each other very well. The songs on this album are a pleasant nod to the prodigious brothers Everly, but the talent and emotion that Oldham and McCarthy are capable of is stifled by the simpleness of these songs from a bygone era. This collection of songs is easy listening, and there is no agenda to make a statement on this album or attempt to change your mind about how things should be. When I hear the track “Milk Train,” I don’t know what a milk train is and I’m not bothered by it—I just go about my business as usual, my modern-day, 4G-WiFi, elevatoring-up-and-down-100-floors business.
A highlight track on this album is the beautifully eerie “Kentucky;” the only qualm I have is that I wish it was longer. I know that Will Oldham is from Kentucky, there is an Oldham County in Kentucky, and there isn’t much else I know about the state leaving it a bit of a mystery to me. Hearing Oldham cover this song seems right, like he is qualified. The duet begins amidst sparse instrumentation, and the song sounds like a eulogy being sung, or a dirge that is lamenting a loss of a time and place. Hearing the original–there is no comparison, the two versions of the same song are dissimilar in every way except for the lyrics. Is Kentucky still a place where “When I die / I want to rest upon your graceful mountains so free” as they say in the song I have no idea, but I have visited the cemetery in Louisville and it’s quite majestic (and hilly). Another great track, also named after a location, is “Omaha.” I couldn’t track down the original, but the rendition done by McCarthy and Oldham is so pretty and makes me wonder if the Everly’s did a similar treatment or not. “Omaha” is one of the few tracks on the album where you get to hear both singers singing solo, and the song has full sound to it with background singers, flutes, wind chimes, a little tambourine.