1993 - 1995, STREAMING NOW

Palace Music | 01/04/18

Image: 1993 Palace streaming now


Palace Music - Ohio River Boat Song / Drinking Woman - Streaming Now

It was the summer of 1992 and Todd Brashear invited his friend Will Oldham to come live with him in Bloomington, Indiana where Brashear was in the Audio Engineering program at IU.  Oldham moved into a house with Brashear and his schoolmate Grant Barger, and soon they began working on music all together.  They set up a weekend session at the house with Barger at the controls, using his 8-track cassette recording machine (not to be confused with the crappy 8-track tape format popularized in the 1970s).  They invited David Pajo to come up from Louisville to play on the session.  There were three songs to tackle: “For the Mekons et al”, “Two More Days”, and “Drinking Woman”.  Brashear played drums and lap steel and sang harmonies, Barger played bass and Pajo played lead guitars (both acoustic and electric).  Oldham sang and played acoustic guitar.  The house was an older house with high ceilings and wood floors, and Barger’s engineering was impeccable so that everything sounded good and felt in line with an aesthetic that felt like a true realization of what was in Oldham’s mind.

Around the same time, Brashear and Oldham scheduled a session in the IU studios, with Brashear as engineer.  Britt Walford and Brian McMahan came up from Louisville and, there in the fancy studio using 16-track 2” magnetic tape, the group recorded “Ohio River Boat Song” and “Riding”, with McMahan playing drums, Brashear playing bass and Walford playing electric guitar.  This sound was big and clean and the songs had a polish to them that differed significantly from the house recording with Barger.  Beautiful, though maybe not quite the kind of recordings Oldham was beginning to want to be a part of.  The Barger session was all about assembling people and getting the takes right together as an ensemble, while the Brashear session was more about studio craft.  One could listen to “Drinking Woman” and hear the musicians clearly, almost imagine one is in the room as the song happens. “Ohio River Boat Song” has more of an out-of-time-and-place vibe happening.  Brashear and Barger were both great engineers, and the methods and technology used for the two sessions differed significantly.

The cover of the single was designed by Paul Greenlaw, a great visual and musical artist from Rhode Island.  Greenlaw used an archival aerial photograph of some unnamed coastline over which he superimposed lettering fashioned from a photograph Oldham had taken of Mekons violinist Susie Honeyman (when Greenlaw started the design, the idea was still for “For the Mekons et al” to be the A-side).  The lettering spelled out “palace songs”.  In the lower-right corner of the front cover was a sad yellow bird that Greenlaw had drawn.  The back cover featured a Greenlaw elephant, a “Palace Brothers” banner, a fleur-de-lis (symbol of Louisville, KY) and a photo from the “Drinking Woman” session of me, Brashear and Pajo.  There’s an alphabetical listing of contributors to the existence of the record, as Oldham was still figuring things out and didn’t know how best to attribute the existence of any fraction of the whole.  Only black and yellow inks were used on the sleeve in order to keep costs down.  The label design was a throwback to old-school labels: royal blue with metallic silver ink.  Dan Osborn is the Drag City graphics admiral and he executed the label design beautifully.

Oldham shot a video for “Ohio River Boat Song” on 16mm black-and-white film using a wind-up Russian camera.  The footage centered around the early morning horse exercises at Churchill Downs in the spring.  Osborn and Oldham edited the footage at Osborn’s office in the HARPO compound.

“For the Mekons et al” came out later on the compilation HEY DRAG CITY.  “Two More Days” came out on a compilation called LOVE IS MY ONLY CRIME, released in Europe.  “Riding” was re-arranged and re-recorded for the record THERE IS NO-ONE WHAT WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU.  The recording of “Riding” from the Bloomington session was included on LOST BLUES AND OTHER SONGS.

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Palace Brothers - There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You - Streaming Now

Once the “Ohio River Boat Song” single went into production, the Palace Brothers were asked for a full-length record.  Over the summer in Bloomington, Oldham had been writing songs and was thrilled to find that these songs might have a welcome place in the world, at least when it came to there being a label willing to release them.  At the end of summer, Oldham moved back to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was ambivalently pursing a college degree in semiotics.  He went to ethnomusicology professor Jeff Titon and suggested an independent study class, supervised by Titon, in which Oldham would work on a set of songs derived in many ways from a variety of historical styles, forms and sources.  Oldham worked on  many of the songs with musicians Matt Fanuele, Paul Greenlaw, John Davis, Mark Cummins, and Colin Gagon.  Davis introduced Oldham to the records of the Royal Trux, and at one point during the fall the Trux came through Providence on tour.  The band stayed over at the house Oldham shared with writer Bob Arellano.  

Oldham and Brashear scheduled the recording session for December of 1992 in Kentucky.  Grant Barger would engineer, using his 8-track cassette rig.  There were two recording locations: a house on Ohio Street (which street has since lost its name to the larger Frankfort Avenue, of which it is effectively an extension) owned by Steve Driesler and a cabin outside of Brandenburg, KY, called “Merciful”.  Brian McMahan and Britt Walford would play on the record, along with Barger, Brashear, Oldham and Paul Greenlaw.  Brashear, Barger, McMahan and Walford traded off instruments (inspired, in part, by the Bad Seeds records of the 1980s), while Oldham stuck to singing and playing the guitar and Greenlaw played the banjo.  Greenlaw was a deeply inspired and unique banjoist; it was the sound of Greenlaw, as opposed to the sound of a banjo, that made Greenlaw’s presence crucial.

The record was mixed by Brashear, Barger, and Oldham at Brashear’s parents house in east Louisville.

There were fifteen songs considered for the recording.  A cover of the Rolling Stones “Hand of Fate” was dropped at the last minute.  The full-length record ended up with twelve songs.  The outtakes were “Don’t I Look Good Today”, which came out on a double 7” comp called LOUISVILLE SLUGGERS 3, released on Mike Bacayu’s Self Destruct label; and “Valentine’s Day”, which came out eventually on the Palace Music comp LOST BLUES AND OTHER SONGS.  The rest of the songs were new originals Oldham began during the previous summer in Bloomington, except “Riding”, which was begun a year or two earlier, and a cover of Washington Phillips’ “I Had a Good Mother and Father”

Auspiciously, David Berman and Bob Nastanovitch of the Silver Jews passed through Louisville and stopped by the session at Driesler’s house.  It had been the Silver Jews 7” Ep that had inspired Oldham to send out the first Palace Brothers recordings.

Greenlaw painted and/or the covers for THERE IS NO-ONE WHAT WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU.  Oldham had asked him to render the fable of the mouse and the lion and requested that Greenlaw use bright pink and yellow.  Greenlaw worked on the cover intensely, ultimately coming up with four powerful variations.  Ultimately, all four were utilized, each for a different format or pressing.  The back cover is a black and white photograph of a road in northern Scotland taken by Oldham during a hitch-hiking trip. 

The record was licensed, via a connection made by Nastanovitch, to the British label Big Cat.  The relationship with Big Cat lasted only for the one release, after which all Palace and Bonnie Prince Billy records were licensed through Domino.

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Palace Music - Come In / Trudy Dies - Streaming Now

It was 1993 and the musical ideas were flowing. Oldham wrote two songs for a 7”, “Trudy Dies” and “Come In”.  There was a live-to-DAT session done in Louisville and/or Chicago that was deemed unsuccessful.  Meanwhile, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux were establishing themselves as freelance record producers under the noms-de-guerre Adam & Eve, and it was decided that they should guide the recording of these two songs.  The studio was King Size, in Chicago, run by Dave Trumfio.  Mike Fellows tracked the drums but Hagerty erased those drum tracks and replayed the kit himself.  Liam Hayes played the Mellotron.  Adam & Eve expressed a desire to bring out the inner Springsteen in Oldham’s songs.  The front cover of the record sleeve featured a drawing by Jeff Mueller of a bird embryo.  The back cover held a photograph by Oldham of land outside of Madison, Virginia.  Lyrics to “Trudy Dies” were included on an insert with drawings by Dianne Bellino.  There was a video made for “Come In” featuring animation by Bellino and 16mm footage of music rehearsals in the basement of David Pajo’s parents’ house.

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Palace Songs - Horses / Stable Will - Streaming Now

It was a silver age of 7” singles in the early 1990’s.  The third single attributed to a Palace conglomerate was the equine-themed “Horses”/”Stable Will”.  “Horses” was recorded by Steve Good, who has recorded live underground shows in Louisville for decades.  The session took place primarily at a house shared by Bob Nastanovitch, Will Oldham, and Britt Walford.  Photographs from the session show Brian McMahan playing the drums, Walford playing bass, and Todd Brashear playing the lap steel guitar.  Oldham sang and played a rhythm guitar.  Oldham asked David Pajo, who was away from town when the session went down, to overdub an electric guitar part including a ripping solo for the end of the song.  Pajo recorded the solo once and then called Oldham a day later saying that he hadn’t quite understood what was being asked of him the first time; he’d like to try it again.  The songwriting is credited to Timms/Langford.  Oldham heard it on Sally Timms’ solo record SOMEBODY’S ROCKING MY DREAMBOAT and had been performing it for a few years.  Jon Langford has subsequently said that Brendan Croker contributed significantly to the composition.

Hardly a “B-side”, “Stable Will” has a full life of its own.  The song was written mostly by Bryan Rich (under the pseudonym ‘Roy Black’).  The ensemble realizing the song was made up of the Pale Horse Riders with Will Oldham singing lead and playing an electric guitar.  The Pale Horse Riders were a wild and awesome noise group made up of Chris Layton, Bob Nastanovitch, Paul Oldham, and Pete Townsend.  The recording took place in the abandoned old Galt House building in downtown Louisville.  Engineer Eric Stoess had access to the building, which was supposedly haunted by a nun.  Layton smudged the room with sage smoke prior to the recording to keep evil spirits away and warned the others to “just keep playing” if the nun appeared during the session.  The musicians shot bottle-rockets at prostitutes on the street below, which was unfair and hardly laudable.

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Palace Music - Days In The Wake - Streaming Now

Towards the end of 1993, Will Oldham found himself in Moscow, staying in the small apartment of Bryan Rich.  Rich was there exploring television reporting and production opportunities.  Oldham and Rich worked out a couple of songs while Oldham was there, and Rich sold Oldham his Marantz stereo cassette recorder for a couple hundred dollars.  Once back in the USA, Oldham continued to work on the set of songs that would be recorded for the second full-length under a Palace name.  Grant Barger had moved to Chicago, and Oldham booked time with Barger to begin recording.  However, things didn’t cohere as they might have (some results ended up on the DRAG CITY HOUR release a few years later), and Oldham retreated to Louisville in frustration.  Todd Brashear had moved to Nashville and was working at a mastering studio.  Oldham began to conceive of the record as an unadorned collection, and furiously rehearsed the songs in hopes of making them fit and function together.  He used the Marantz that he’d bought from Rich (along with the microphone Rich had thrown into the deal) and began recording the record at his folks’ house.  The performances were mostly solo, with the exception of “I Send My Love to You” and “Pushkin”, which featured Paul Oldham on second guitar.  Oldham hauled the Marantz with him when he travelled to Birmingham, Alabama to visit brother Ned Oldham.  There he recorded “No More Workhorse Blues” during a thunderstorm, and “Come a Little Dog”.  On the latter song, overdubbing was made possible (percussion, barking, Jennie Oldham’s flute) by playing the cassette of the original tracking on the Oldham’s home stereo while recording the new parts onto the Marantz.  The record was mastered by John Kampschaefer in Louisville; Dianne Bellino contributed a drawing to the artwork, and the front cover is a photo taken in an Irish pub a few years earlier (on the same trip that yielded the back cover photo from THERE IS NO-ONE WHAT WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU).  Oldham was inspired by the economy exhibited in the artwork for the then-current Royal Trux record, CATS AND DOGS.  Drag City pays artists based on profit-split (no advances), thus it made sense to deliver inexpensive package concepts if one was to hope to make a living from one’s music.  When the record was released, it had no title.  After a few months, a title occurred to Oldham, DAYS IN THE WAKE, and it was applied to subsequent pressings.  The record was licensed to Domino for Europe, beginning a relationship between Oldham and Domino that continues to this day.

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Palace Songs - Hope - Streaming Now

DAYS IN THE WAKE was made with somewhat of an urgent desperation, and feelings of fear and loss are abundant in the result.  Will Oldham then felt compelled to oppose such darkness with an expression of gratitude for what he was being allowed to do and make.  He asked Rian Murphy to oversee production of a four-song session at Acme studios in Chicago with Liam Hayes featured prominently on piano and organ.  Four songs were recorded; two of Oldham’s, one Leonard Cohen song (“Winter Lady”) and one song written by Bryan Rich (again under the name Roy Black) and Steve Baker (“Christmastime in the Mountains”).  Technologies were changing, and all of the songs were mixed from 2” tape down to ¼” tape and DAT. The formats have inherently different qualities and in the end, the ¼” mixes of the two Oldham songs were used, while the DAT mixes of the two covers were used.  Oldham wrote two more songs to be recorded in London.  Domino arranged for a session at the Stone Room with Sean O’Hagan playing piano.  Oldham had hoped that Heather Frith, a singer from Bermuda, would be able to sing on the sessions.  She was not available, so Domino introduced Oldham to Brianna Corrigan, formerly of the Beautiful South.  Corrigan joined the session, along with drummer Rob Allum.  Oldham was particularly thrilled to be working in the Stone Room, since the Mekons’ CURSE OF THE MEKONS had been recorded there.  “All Gone, All Gone” and “Werner’s Last Blues to Blokbuster”, both written in Jamestown, RI, were recorded at this session and completed what was then to be the HOPE EP.  Konrad Strauss mastered the record.  The front cover featured a photograph by Nicole Vitello of  boats docked in Essaouira rendered in the vibrant colors of modern color-copying machines.  The back cover was dominated by a photo of Liam Hayes’ magical hands.  There was also a photo of Oldham with Dianne Bellino taken by Steve Gullick.

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Palace Music - West Palm Beach / Gulf Shores - Streaming Now

Palace Music - The Mountain Low - Streaming Now

Palace Music - The Mountain - Streaming Now

The “Palace Brothers” were invited to open the 2nd stage of the Lollapalooza tour for a couple of weeks in the summer of 1994.  At the end of that run a recording session was booked at producer Kramer’s home studio in New Jersey.  The band was Will OldhamAram Stith (guitar), Jason Stith (bass) and Jack Carneal (drums) and Ned Oldham (guitar).  The Trux had done their “Back to School” 7” with Kramer, and it excited Will to think of going in and seeing how the notorious producer twiddled his knobs.  The two songs were “West Palm Beach” and “Gulf Shores”.  The band had not heard the songs prior to the session.  Will had written the songs in the weeks leading up to the summer road stretch.

Will Oldham moved to Birmingham, Alabama to live near brother Ned and family.  Birmingham was quiet and inexpensive and a few degrees warmer than Louisville in general.  Will wanted to make a record in Birmingham and looked around (the phone book) for a recording studio.  He came upon Bates Brothers Recording in nearby Hueytown and decided to do a test session with Ned and drummer Charlie Snell.  They recorded “O How I Enjoy the Light” and “Marriage”.  Eric Bates was the engineer.  The Bates’ studio was well-stocked with keyboards: piano, mellotron, Hammond b-3.  The sounds were tight and dry, reminding Oldham of tones obtained in 1970’s Serge Gainsbourg recordings.  The photographs on the cover of the single were taken by Bryan Rich.  Rich claimed that the back cover photograph was of the ruins of Mikhail Bulgakov’s house.  This record was the first under the Palace Records imprint; Oldham had begun to be able to afford to pay for recording sessions, lessening the pressure that comes with spending other people’s money. 

The test session at Bates Brothers had been a success.  Will Oldham felt comfortable inviting Steve Albini to Alabama to make a full-length record (what would become VIVA LAST BLUES).  The Bates’ ample supply of beautifully-maintained keyboards made inviting Liam Hayes to the session a no-brainer.  Oldham spoke with Britt Walford about playing drums but eventually Walford formally balked.  Instead, Will was encouraged by brother Paul Oldham to ask Jason Loewenstein to come drum.  Loewenstein (of Sparkalepsy and Sebadoh) was living in Louisville at the time.  Ned Oldham played the bass.  Bryan Rich played “lead guitar”; questions still get asked about where said guitar was leading.  Oldham has said that Stevie Wonder’s MUSIC OF MY MIND and Cat Stevens’ CATCH BULL AT FOUR were sonic influences, though such influence is hardly notable in the final product.  Albini did some significant maintenance work on the 2” tape machines at the Bates studio in order to get things properly up and running.  The record was titled VIVA LAST BLUES, in patial tribute to the movies of Russ Meyer.  The “last” aspect had to do with Oldham feeling like he was coming to the end of a certain trajectory of discovery.  The cover featured a drawing of a cheetah by Dianne Bellino.  The LP came with a poster featuring a painting by Cynthia Kirkwood; the CD featured a different Kirkwood painting in the booklet’s center spread.  A video was made by Aaron Woolf for the song “Old Jerusalem”; actress Chloe Sevigny starred in the video.

Around this time, folks (PavementKing Kong) were going to Easley Studios in Memphis to make their records.  Oldham didn’t like the inherent sounds of these records but figured he would take a first-hand look at Easley by recording two songs there.  These two songs were “(End of) Traveling” and “Lost Blues”.  Oldham asked brother Paul along with Jason Hayden (presently of One Beat Off) and Pete Townsend (not of the Who) to come to Memphis for the session.  These were ¾ (at the time) of the great Louisville band Speed-to-Roam.  Memphis’ Tiffany White sang “Lost Blues” with Will as a full duet partner, the first of many.  Studio owner/engineer Doug Easley played the pedal steel guitar.  It was decided that “The Mountain” from VIVA LAST BLUES would be released as a single with “(End of) Traveling” as a b-side.  Two mixes were run of “(End of) Traveling”.  The mix with a “dry” pedal steel was included on the 7” record.  The cover of the “Mountain Low” single was a photo that Oldham had taken in Glen Lyon, Scotland, in the shadow of Ben Lawers.  “Lost Blues” was later released on the Palace Music compilation LOST BLUES AND OTHER SONGS.

As with the 7” comp AN ARROW THROUGH THE BITCH the previous year (and the Royal Trux DOGS OF LOVE EP), it was decided to compile the “Mountain” 7” and the “West Palm Beach” 7” onto one four-song EP for release overseas on Domino.  The mix of “(End of) Traveling” used on this EP had a “wet” pedal steel.  The cover art was made by Nolen Otts.  Otts intended the art to resemble classic Cuban cigar box art. 

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Palace Music - Viva Last Blues - Streaming Now

Palace Music - O How I Enjoy The Light - Streaming Now

Oldham’s Palace Records came into being in 1995.  The twin intentions at the time for Palace Records were to formalize the new model of self-funding recording sessions and artwork commissions and to release great musics that Oldham was hearing that he figured might be a hard sell to the folks at Drag City.  Three 7”s were released in 1995 on Palace Records that were non-Palace/Will Oldham endeavors.  The first was by E/Or, a Louisville group made up of Steve Good (clarinet), Norman Minogue (drums), George Wethington (short wave radio), and Martin Williams (guitar).  The two songs are epic abstracts, “Mike” and “Martin Found a Jealous Cop...”, each stretching the limits of the physical format to its outer boundaries.

The other two Palace Records non-Will-Oldham singles released in 1995 were both by the Broadcast Choir.  From the ashes of the Pale Horse Riders came this experimental trio made up of Paul OldhamPeter Townsend and Chris Layton.  The records were “The Chapel Song”/“Down the Liver” and “Lights Out”/“Deflective War”.  Both singles are harrowing, awesome complements to any playlist.