Sight Unsound: The Bonnie and the Believers

Nov 21, 2006 at 7:54 pm
Bonnie Prince Billy: In whatever configuration — and by whatever name he’s using — Bonnie “Prince” Billy is producing some of the best music of his career.
Bonnie Prince Billy: In whatever configuration — and by whatever name he’s using — Bonnie “Prince” Billy is producing some of the best music of his career.
How do we love Will Oldham? Let me count the ways: They are as numerous as the stars in the sky … or at least as many as the different names and band configurations he’s recorded with.

The staff of Drag City Records should be given the first-ever Nobel Prize in Patience for their nurturing indulgence of this most restless of folk-rock musical enigmas. He’s coming home again this week, performing as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. That seems to be his favored nom of recent years, during which he’s produced much of his best music. His newest release The Letting Go, which Oldham went to Iceland to record, is being talked up as a career peak.

The gig that Will (or Billy, or Palace Bro No. 1, if you will) will headline is the November edition of the Last Saturday show series. Auxiliary Records deserves considerable praise for setting a bit of regimentation into low-key local shows: They’ve been presenting Last Saturday with the kind of reliability that helps both bands and fans to connect and to focus.

The series has its own Web site,, but we’ll steal its thunder and tell you that Bonnie “Prince” Billy is joined by two other acts you don’t see just every day — the post-punk drone-and-more that is Chicago’s Lichens and Louisville’s amorphous Sapat.

The show starts at 7 p.m. Saturday night at St. John’s Church (637 E. Market). It’s all-ages, and $8 gets you in.  

Norma Jean
Norma Jean
A couple dozen blocks away on the same night, Headliners is putting on their own bill — and the bands on that stage haven’t gotten mainstream radio love, either. In fact, the whole point of the “Radio Rebellion” tour is to have a night of acts that have been doing fine without the benefit of airplay. Or, as Cory Brandan says, “We’re selling thousands of records, and all these bands are relevant. Instead of conforming (to radio), radio should be conforming to us.”

If those sound like fightin’ words, don’t look for Brandan to start brawling — he and his bandmates have their metalcore quintet Norma Jean on a path that regularly (but not single-mindedly) highlights their Christian beliefs.

The new Norma Jean disc Redeemer lets the band’s strengths jump out of the speakers. Much credit for that should be given to producer Ross Robinson, who also mixed the record. “We had plenty of time on this record,” says Brandan, and Robinson maintained a studio atmosphere that emphasized spontaneity. The results show up with plenty of beautiful details beneath and around the basis of Norma Jean’s sound, which is a dual of guitars that sound like two monster chainsaws.

Of course, Brandan’s vocals — usually an open, edgy roar — often grab the foreground. You might not immediately catch everything he brings forth — for example, the personal poignancy among the regretful lyrics of “A Small Spark vs. A Great Forest” (The corpses I’ve made/this should not be/Oh, how we curse/the tongue is a flame/Let there be grace/Fight fair!). But often the savagery of the wrestling moodiness includes a catchy immediacy — as in the rough-and-eldritch, early-U2 thrum below and chorus above that drive “No Passenger: No Parasite.”

By the way, sometimes there are more than two guitars: Though Brandan refers to Norma Jean as “the first band I’ve not played guitar for,” that’s him being a road warrior, concerned foremost with what he does on the Radio Rebellion stages. He says his guitar shows up somewhere on most or all of the tracks on Redeemer — presumably he contributes to the wonderful noise cascade on “The End of All Things will be Televised.”

A lot of the chaotic effect that the band achieves might be founded in their style for group songwriting. “We all write throughout the year. Each of us, alone — doing it even now, even as we’ve just released (a new record),” he said. “When it’s time to record, we’ll shack up together, like in some dungeon, and play what we’ve developed individually and bounce ideas off each other.”

The rest of the “rebellious” lineup definitely has their own ideas, as well as their own beliefs. Perfect example: North Carolina’s Between the Buried and Me, whose metalcore is suffused with math-rock and, on their neat new disc The Anatomy Of, has back-to-back covers of Queen and King Crimson. Also at Headliners (1386 Lexington Road, 584-8088) on Saturday night are Fear Before the March of Flames and Misery Signals. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $17.

Hoobastank is coming to town this week on a tour that follows the release of their most adventurous album. Every Man for Himself is a well-painted statement of (re-) purpose, with some grand sonic broadstrokes. What makes their Sunday night show at Headliners so appealing, though, is how well they and their support band complement each other. If you’re a Hoobastank fan, or just want to see how well alt-rock can fill out its wardrobe with pop accessories, make sure you show up early enough to see Agent Sparks (scheduled to hit the stage at 7:30 p.m.).

Agents that come from L.A. are usually pure parasites. This one is instead a quartet where the three boisterous males (lining up onstage as the usual guitar and vocals plus bass plus drums) are completed — not counterbalanced — by a female keyboardist/vocalist, who is known for her grace notes. (She added memorable touches to Weezer’s “Beverly Hills.”)

Whether the frequent Pixies comparisons whet your appetite or put a twinge in your gut, there is plenty of loud and quirky freshness to be found in what the group laid down on a marvelous 2005 EP and the recent full-length Red Rover. Tickets for the Nov. 26 show are $17.

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