Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - What The Brothers Sang
For artists such as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Dawn McCarthy, who are mostly associated with alt-folk and indie-rock, a full album homage to the Everly Brothers initially comes as a surprise.
The Everly Brothers sold millions of records with pop songs such as 'All I Have To Do Is Dream' and 'Wake up Little Susie' but they had their chart-topping thunder stolen by the Beatles and retreated back into their first love, country music, to great acclaim. The 13 tunes included on What the Brothers Sang come from that later period, and 'So Sad' and 'Devoted to You' were the only chart singles.
Dawn and Bonnie previously worked together on his acclaimed album The Letting Go, as well as recent single 'Christmas Eve Can Kill You'.Their link with the Everlys is geographical as well as musical, as all of them have a Kentucky connection.
Will Oldham grew up in Louisville and was closely involved with the post-rock band Slint – he took the black and white pic which they used for the cover of their classic Spiderland album – and although Dawn is from California, she appeared at the Slint-curated All Tomorrow's Parties with her band Faun Fables; a line-up that featured many of their friends from the Kentucky scene. The Everly Brothers come from the same state. This album's closing track 'Kentucky' - a lovely reflective piece with lyrics like, "you are the dearest land outside of heaven to me" - was a song that the brothers learnt from their father Ike, a respected country and blue grass musician who helped popularise the "thumb-picking" style way back in the 1940s. This music goes way back, and can now be considered American "traditional music".
Most of the songs here are actually from the latter part of the 1960s, although they sound like they come from an earlier, different time. 'Milk Train', for example, remembers the time when "the milk train used to rumble my shack" and paints a vivid picture of a world long lost. This type of album is a way of breathing life into this old music, not unlike what people like Alasdair Roberts and Rob St John have been doing with folk music from the British Isles. A lot of the songs are rooted in the folk and country styles of the Appalachian mountains, whilst some others are plucked from the great American songbook – there are writing credits for Kris Kristofferson ('Breakdown'), John Denver ('Poems Prayers and Promises') and Goffin/ King ('Just What I Was Looking For')
I received this album in a very modern format, a personalised watermarked stream. The second time I played it I was distracted and left my headphones sitting on my desk, the album still playing. When I came back into the room, I thought that the distant audio sounded like an old radio playing the songs, so I listened through to the rest of it like that.
Of course, repeated listens have brought out much more. The recording is sublime and the assembled cast of players – including familiar Bonnie acquaintances Matt Sweeney and Emmet Kelly - treat the songs with respect. Dawn's voice is heard first and they share the vocals evenly throughout, and the real highlight for me is the way that their two voices work together.
There are uptempo songs where they sound like they are having fun, the aforementioned 'Milk train' and the rocky 'Somebody Help Me', but the essential tracks are those which visit the sadder side of country music.
'Empty Boxes' and 'What Am I Living For' are classic duets, their voices combining with the subtle instrumentation to create a beautiful sense of melancholy. 'My Little Yellow Bird' is another "love went away" song, with another ambitious arrangement using flutes and strings mid song to create unusual discord.
'So Sad' and 'It's All Over' are classic melodic country, tugging at the heartstrings with the pedal steel, reminiscent of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris's own Everlys tribute 'Love Hurts', which is actually another obvious song that Bonnie and Dawn have avoided. Whilst 'Omaha' sounds like late-60s country rock with its shifting emphasis between harmonically complicated verses and swelling choruses, 'Kentucky' wraps up the collection by rooting them firmly in the place that all these songs were born.
This may be too country, or too traditional, for some of Bonnie and Dawn's fan base. However, the way their voices entwine and breathe life into a legendary act often by-passed by today's music fans makes What the Brothers Sang very worthy of your attention.