ROCK / A singular brother and the dog that isn't: Out of Louisville, Kentucky, comes a great album, not quite gospel, not quite country. Ben Thompson talked to its author, or tried to

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The Independent Culture
EVERY SO often you hear something for the first time, and you don't quite grasp what's special about it straight away, but you know you're going to spend a long time and get a lot of joy finding out. Palace Brothers, the second album by the enigmatic Louisville, Kentucky, ensemble of the same name, is one such record. It's hard not to get a lump in your throat standing in the little acoustic-guitar entrance-hall to the opening song, 'You Will Miss Me', and once you're properly inside, there's no way out. 'When you have no one,' sings a voice that strains and cracks even as it conveys an extraordinary sense of strength, 'no one can hurt you.'

The voice belongs to Will Oldham, a 24- year-old whose talents bring new meaning to the word precocious: he sounds about 60. The guitar belongs to him as well. One of the many strange things about the Palace Brothers is that there is only one of them. On this album, that is - for it turns out that the classic one-man Palace Brothers line-up is already history. Oldham, determined to make each record and do each tour differently, has just taken his impossibly delicate songs on America's 'Lollapalooza' package tour with a three-guitar attack.

His determination to put people off the scent extends to the packaging of his records. The last Palace Brothers single, unnervingly entitled 'An Arrow Through the Bitch', had a sleeve which made it look like a bad Belgian techno record. And their debut album, There is No One What Will Take Care of You (Big Cat, 1993), an understated masterpiece of Southern gothic on which Oldham was accompanied by Britt Walford and Todd Prashear (mainstays of another, almost equally enigmatic Louisville band, Slint), had a horrible ink-drawing of a lion on its cover. 'It seems like things are easier to listen to,' Oldham says, 'if you don't have to think about anything besides the music.'

He is improbably baby-faced, his high forehead crowned with tufts of blond hair like remnants of Shredded Wheat around the top of the bowl. And he is reluctant to talk about what makes his music sound the way it does. 'It's hard to have perspective and to be participating at the same time,' he observes, not unreasonably.

He used to be an actor, with appearances in John Sayles's Matewan and, bizarrely, as the father of the little girl who fell down the well in a seldom-seen US TV movie. So I ask about that, but a harmless enquiry as to whether Oldham enjoyed acting elicits a 10-second silence.

Is this too complicated a question? 'It's something like, an activity, something that you find yourself doing at an early age, and it ends at that early age.' Did it end with a flourish or did it just taper off? 'Sort of . . .' he smiles, 'a flourishing taper.'

Perhaps, one day, bookshop shelves will groan with copies of Conversation the Will Oldham Way, but it seems unlikely. Songwriting, though, is another matter. Titles from the first album - 'Idle Hands are the Devil's Playthings', 'I Try to Stay Healthy for You' and the immortal 'I was Drunk at the Pulpit' - supply a clue to Oldham's concerns: religion and the family. But there is a strange, magical quality to the best of his songs that puts them both within and without the traditions they

borrow from, which are country and gospel.

On Palace Brothers, his writing seems to have both tightened up and broadened out. Oldham sings of 'The blessed grace of waking up and breathing in the sheets', and the prospect of listening to his songs again certainly puts a shine on a new day. From apparently straightforward love songs such as 'I Send My Love to You' and 'Whither Thou Goest', to the transcendent concluding number 'I am a Cinematographer' or the bizarre and beautiful 'No More Workhorse Blues' (in which an impassioned Oldham sings: 'I am no more workhorse, I am a racing horse, I am a grazing horse - I am your favourite horse]'), there is a true poet at work here.

Horses and especially dogs crop up frequently in Oldham's songs. Do they mean a lot to him? 'Right now,' he says authoritatively, 'dogs are very important to me.' He doesn't own one, but has co-habited recently with a 'figurative dog'. An imaginary dog, then? 'Not imaginary . . . parallel.' So the dog in the song is a real dog that parallels the imaginary dog that he's been living with? 'The dog that barks in the song is living at the level of the song.' It's a metaphor then. 'It's not a metaphor because it doesn't represent anything. It exists.' So it's a real dog - what breed is it, a labrador or something? 'It's a stray.' That's not a breed, it's a condition.

It's a strange feeling, being unable to get a straight answer out of someone who communicates so directly and beautifully in song. I get up to pay the coffee bill and wishfully leave the tape recorder running on the cafe table, but Will Oldham just sighs and looks out of the window. When he does talk about music, he talks about people getting strength from it. Does he see songs as a kind of nourishment that he supplies? 'No,' he is shocked, 'there's no way, no way . . .' So does he take nourishment from doing things that other people might possibly get nourishment from? A long pause . . . 'Yep]'

'Palace Brothers' (Domino, CD/LP/tape) is released on Tuesday.