Music: The country frontlash

Bill Callahan and Will Oldham are acclaimed pioneers of alternative country, yet the former is inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan and the latter does heavy metal covers.
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The Independent Culture
It's only the second week in February and already spring's sonic daffodils are poking through the boy-band mulch. Those who feared they would live their whole lives without seeing Mercury Rev and Tony Christie in the same top 20 singles chart can now rest easy. And a double bill of albums every bit as deliciously twisted as that unlikely coupling has got 1999 off to a flyer in the long-playing stakes. Bonnie "Prince" Billy's I See A Darkness and Knock Knock by Smog are the sort of records decades get remembered for, never mind years.

Both are released on the same label - Wandsworth-based boutique imprint Domino Records, which has for some years been carving out a reputation as Britain's most inspired independent - and both were made by serious- seeming Americans with a lot of history behind them. Bill Callahan, aka Smog, and Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince "Billy, sit stiffly in different South West London bars, eager to explain themselves.

In comparison with previous Smog releases, Knock Knock is an impossibly upbeat record. The line, "For the first time in my life I let myself be held, like a big old baby", is fully representative of the overall lyrical tone, and the fact that this album features not one but two songs showcasing the Chicago Children's Choir is fair warning of its maverick tendencies.

"Have you ever heard a song with children's voices on it that you didn't like?" demands Callahan. A somewhat forbidding individual who will never use words when silence is available, the image of him in the studio surrounded by tiny acolytes is more or less irresistible. Knock Knock's choral segments were not recorded live, it turns out, but with Callahan lip-syncing the main vocal through a glass studio partition. "They wanted to see me sing," he says proudly.

Having released some of the strangest, loveliest records of the Nineties under names that were variations on palatial themes (Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs), it made a crazy kind of sense that Will Oldham should rebrand himself in tribute to the son of a deposed monarch. The unwieldliness of Bonny "Prince" Billy's name is in sharp contrast with the increased accessibility of his music. Previously a man who seemed to carry the weight of the world in his forehead, Oldham admits that "Pleasure was more on the agenda" with I See A Darkness. He hopes this record will "enable the listener to consider as a victory things he or she would previously have realistically thought of only as a defeat".

Ask him what brought about this sudden upturn in his emotional fortunes and Oldham will tell you about the three weeks he spent in the winter of 1997, touring Europe with a group of improvisational musicians, playing live soundtracks to an experimental black-and-white film about the hardships of life in an Alaskan fishing village. The funny thing is he will not actually be joking. You can even find a record of the tour, if you look very carefully (The Last Place To Go by Boxhead Ensemble Atavistic LP96CD), and share this experience for yourself.

Callahan, too, has some rather surprising new sources of inspiration to tell of. A trip to see Wu-Tang Clan bad-boy Ol' Dirty Bastard perform last summer seems to have made a big impression on him. "It was really great, you know? He had a posse - eight other rappers came out first and did three songs without him - and it was like watching a party. What I like about music is to get the feeling that you're spending a day talking to somebody. I also like Funkadelic a lot, too, because you get that sense from them."

It may be that earlier Smog records, 1996's mesmerising, borderline catatonic The Doctor Came At Dawn, for example, were heavily influenced by Funkadelic, but if so, that influence was very discreet. When Will Oldham said in a recent American interview that he hoped people would listen to his records in the same way his New York neighbour listened to Mariah Carey, a trend became discernible. To understand it, you have to go back a little.

Oldham and Callahan first played live together in Britain in 1995. With Britpop at its brazen height and America still trying to fill the void left by the death of Kurt Cobain with clump and grind grunge pretenders, the ancient quietness of their music was a marvellous revelation. Four years on, the reconnection with the well-springs of American folk pioneered by Palace and Smog has become a commonplace. Mojo cover stories, Radio 1 Newsbeat reports and free CDs given away with Uncut magazine celebrate the commodification of that reconnection under such sweeping umbrella headings as "alt country", "Americana" and "the new roots explosion".

Such marketing ruses are anathema to ornery frontier individualists like Oldham and Callahan. "Calling the music Americana is ridiculous," the former says sensibly, "What happens to the rest of America?" The suggestion that he might be part of a wider musicianly society goads Callahan to unheard of heights of annoyance. "I don't know if anyone in their right mind..." he pauses, as if surprised by his own ardour, "it's not for me, at least, to be part of a community. My music changes so much it's ridiculous for me to be lumped in with other people. I guess I'm pretty lazy and if I felt I was part of a community I would just think, `Oh well, let Jimmy take care of it'."

The two men's determination to set themselves apart from their burgeoning would-be peer group has had some hilarious results. In conversation, Oldham persistently pronounces the name of his inexplicably revered fellow troubadour Mark Eitzel as "Mark Asshole". Where he once peered out at his audience with a look of child-like bemusement, Bonnie "Prince" Billy's recent London Astoria show found him rocking out in a sweat-soaked vest and belching loutishly into the microphone. He later amazed a packed King's Cross Water Rats with a testosterone-crazed cover of AC/DC's "Big Balls".

Callahan, meanwhile, styles Knock Knock as "an album for teenagers". For the cover art, he chose lightning and wildcats, on the basis that these are "things teenagers identify with". This suggests an intuitive rapport with the youth of today which is little short of frightening.

All of this repositioning would be no more than a diversion if the music it had produced wasn't so fantastic. Call it what you will - and "The alt country frontlash" is the designation all the smart money's on - Oldham and Callahan's rebellion against received wisdom is an example to us all. Neil Young once wrote that on feeling his music becoming middle of the road, his only option was to head for the ditch. Bill Callahan puts it even better in Knock Knock's exquisite "River Guard". "We are constantly on trial," he sings, "It's a way to be free."