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Bill Callahan/Bonnie “Prince” Billy - Blind Date Party Music Album Reviews

Bill Callahan/Bonnie “Prince” Billy - Blind Date Party Music Album Reviews
Featuring collaborators from across the Drag City universe and a repertoire of gospel, country, pop, and rock covers, Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s lockdown double-album is playful and spirited.

In October of 2020, Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy posted a cover of the Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens’ 1967 protest anthem “Blackness of the Night.” “For this bad bad world, I’m beginning to doubt/I’m alone and there is no one by my side,” the Bills harmonize, Callahan low and steady, Will Oldham lilting above, over a gentle shuffle of acoustic guitar and synth courtesy of their labelmate Azita Youssefi. Though it’s a song centered on solitude and loneliness, sung from the point of view of an outcast, the recording exudes a spirit of camaraderie, longtime compatriots reaching across the digital expanse to connect, “Determined to make a new friend out of an old favorite.”

It would have been lovely enough on its own, but the covers kept coming, through the fall and into winter, each pairing Callahan and Oldham with a new collaborator from the diverse Drag City roster. All 19 are collected on the newly issued Blind Date Party, which functions less like a singles collection and more like an overstuffed double album: discursive, playful, and full of imagination. While a few selections hew close to the country, hushed-folk balladry deep cuts one might expect—songwriters include Leonard Cohen, John Prine, Lowell George, and Robert Wyatt—they often veer into new territory, bouncing from hard rock to fluttering electronic pop, from meditative groovers to gospel, from the avant-garde to raucous sing-a-longs.

The album’s concept was simple: Oldham and Callahan selected songs they wanted to hear each other sing and sent them off to a wide-ranging cast of collaborators—including Meg Baird, David Pajo, David Grubbs, and Sir Richard Bishop—who arranged and recorded contributions, returning them to the duo to finesse and eventually sequence into a full-length. Quarantine necessitated plenty of records assembled in a similar manner, but the “sight unseen” aspect—Oldham and Callahan gave no specific directions or input to their collaborators—injects a sense of spontaneity into the remote sessions. “If you give someone the freedom to make their own interpretation, then there’s a good chance that what they’re going to do is going to come from their heart, you know?” Callahan says in the album’s liner notes, noting Cooper Crain of Bitchin Bajas’ desire to give Iggy Pop’s “I Want To Go To the Beach” a reggae makeover.

Liberties are taken, from Bill McKay’s almost samba-like approach to Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” to the psychedelic mantras of Wyatt’s “Sea Song” with Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner. Though there were eventually some notes traded between collaborators, there are countless moments of creative verve, especially when the two take on each other’s songs. Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny resurrects one of Oldham’s Palace numbers with crunchy drums and gnarly guitars. Meanwhile, Dead Rider transforms Smog’s “Our Anniversary” into a genuine ripper, boosted by Oldham’s soaring vocals. “Everything that can sing/Is singing its mating song,” he yelps triumphantly over Todd Rittman’s overdriven riffs.

The best songs here similarly evoke the most unmoored days of the pandemic, and perhaps that’s what informs the joyful whoop Callahan lets out at the start of Lou Reed’s ode to domesticity, “Rooftop Garden,” in which the Greek lutist Xylouris White stirs up John Cale-style drones. Those moments of levity are found throughout. Paired with his Superwolf bud Matt Sweeney, Oldham employs a clipped pronunciation of the word “cocaine” on Hank William’s Jr.’s “O.D.’d In Denver,” evoking the way Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland might say it. On Billie Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay” with Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas, the two relish in the chance to go full-on synth-pop.

At an hour and a half, Blind Date Party could be trimmed into a slimmer volume, but it plays wonderfully as a longform epic. The best mixtapes are bound together by a hard-to-pinpoint but somehow felt logic, and these songs about faith, horniness, devotion, bottoming out, and rising up bear the mark of their assemblers. “Human beings, they do miracles,” Callahan sings, backed by Ty Segall doing his best Sly Stone on a cover of Johnnie Frierson’s moving lo-fi gospel “Miracles.” In Callahan and Oldham’s hands, the song speaks in concert with the bruised hope of David Berman’s “The Wild Kindness,” performed here with Cassie Berman (David’s former wife and bandmate) and dozens of voices. As the song crescendos and Pajo’s distorted guitar snakes frantically, Callahan and Oldham’s own vocals are nearly swallowed up by the big choir. And yet, you still feel them.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Bill Callahan/Bonnie “Prince” Billy - Blind Date Party Music Album Reviews Bill Callahan/Bonnie “Prince” Billy - Blind Date Party Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, January 04, 2022 Rating: 5

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