Days in the Wake by Palace Brothers

Daysinthewake_albumcoverPalace Brothers
Days in the Wake
1994; Drag City

My Rating: 10/10
I will admit that when I bought this album, the purchasing decision was based purely on hype and a burgeoning thirst for hipster credibility in my 15 year-old heart. It was the fall of 1994, and I was pretty new to my local music heritage, but all the talk around town was about this fella Will Oldham and the crazy/weird hillbilly music he was making under the moniker Palace Brothers. I think I recognized the record from the Slamdek Distribution Catalog, and I bought it on a whim on my way home from school one day, at ear X-tacy of course.

I wasn’t 100 feet down the street when someone shouted out to me: “Great fucking record!!!” It was the first and only time I have ever been congratulated and formally recognized for my impeccable taste in music. It also gives you an idea that, in Louisville, in the mid-90’s, Palace Brothers were the second coming.

And I’m not one to foster backlash just because I bought this record for the wrong reasons. The Lord works in mysterious ways, after all. Fifteen years and several thousand albums later, I would still count this record among my top 20 at least. And not only that, I would say that it’s a landmark in the way that Spiderland or Slanted & Enchanted or If You’re Feeling Sinister or OK Computer is. Brilliant, mysterious, haunting, mind-blowing, all of these word describe these records, and Days in the Wake no less.

As for mystery, Days in the Wake is probably one of the most mysterious records in the history of popular music. Although Will Oldham has subsequently become something of an indie icon, in 1994, he had one other LP, a few 7″ records, and a role in an obscure indie film under his belt. All we really knew was that he was some sort of child prodigy, and that he was probably the dude in the picture on the album cover.

As for the songs themselves, well, that’s where the magic starts. Recorded on what sounds like a jambox or some other cheap voice recording device, these ten songs are captured completely off-the-cuff, warts, finger swipes, voice cracks, and all. Was it a clever ploy by Oldham to somehow pull off something “authentic?” Not everyone was  making this kind of music back then, after all, and Palace Brothers’ first LP, There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You, didn’t exactly make a splash.

The bottom line is we’ll never know. What I can tell you though, is that whether or not it was a clever gimmick, it works. There is a backwoods, lonesome magic that shines through here, an emotional directness that sets a new standard for just what we expect from confessional pop music. To put it simply, if Oldham is trying to trick us into thinking that he’s the real deal, he does a damn good job of it. (And based on the quality of his subsequent output, and the emotional and artistic cohesion of his entire catalogue, I think Oldham is just an artist that found his voice here.)

I’ve often dreamed of seeing an “electric” version of this record. While Oldham did do a re-boot of some of these tunes on Sings Greatest Palace Music, those versions were often a little bit hokey (see the updated version of “I Am A Cinematographer”).  What about a full-on rock version of “Pushkin,” one of the most powerful tunes Oldham has ever recorded? Or the same for “No More Workhorse Blues?” Nevermind all that. The magic Oldham captures here is once in a lifetime type stuff. It is his own Nebraska, a testament to a moment in time that he could very easily update but, in all honesty, it’s probably best he doesn’t. Leave that to the tributes, right?

The aforementioned “Pushkin” and “Workhorse” are highlights, as are  “(Thou) Without Partner” and “I am a Cinematographer.” And the other songs are all great too. But Days in the Wake, ultimately, is not the kind of thing I want to describe to you, because you should really hear it for yourself. It’s an experience that can’t be anymore directly communicated than by listening to the record itself. So go out and get yourself a copy, on vinyl, if you don’t already have one, and give this here cinematographer a look-see.

Have you heard Days in the Wake? What do you make of it?

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