ALBUMS: The New Adventures of Bill and Billy in Drag City

Blind Date Party finds the two towers of Chicago’s preeminent indie rock imprint celebrating the diversity of their forever home

Will Oldham and Bill Callahan merged together over the lockdown in celebration of their forever home Drag City Records (Image: Drag City)

The one thing to understand about this album before you critique it positively or negatively is that in an ideal world it shouldn’t exist.

Cut back to 2019, David Berman of The Silver Jews seemed to have charted a career comeback with his new Purple Mountains debut released in July. Sadly, it was not to be as he ended up committing suicide within the next month in August, beset by major depression and financial woes. With this sadness, however,  came many tribute albums. None of which are more fully realized and communal than Blind Date Party by Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, collectively made with other Drag City labelmates. The community beset by tragedy came together to record some covers in a variety of styles as a requiem in honor of the memory of their dear friend. That is not to say the album is thematic to sadness, as many of the songs are chipper and a celebration of life, and the label that enabled his passions. I truly believe this record is designed as a memorialization of the label as a whole as well as David Berman’s life. 

 

 

Going into its tracklist, one first notices the relatively sparse, uncluttered arrangements. Delving further inward, you begin to recognize how they play around with the source material’s original formats. One of the early tracks “OD’d in Denver” featuring Matt Sweeney, is a Hank Williams Jr composition that is brought to new darker light, matching its sad lyrics with a minimalist guitar arrangement that has a trance-like effect upon the listener drawing them into the simple songwriting of the original tune. 


Artist: Bill Callahan and Bonnie Prince Billy 

Album: Blind Date Party 

Label: Drag City Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 


Not content with only covering old hat classics, they do a fun synthetic cover of the Billie Eilish tune “Wish You Were Gay” with Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas. One thing that resonates is that the song keeps up some of its modern production touches of the original but adds more acoustic instrumentation alongside it to show how the song shines in any arrangement with its witty love-lorn lyrics. 

“Rooftop Garden,” an obscure Lou Reed track, shines in a completely new light that changes up its arrangement almost entirely, with help from George Xyllouris. Gone is the booming bassline and Lou Reed’s nasally ‘New Yawk’ delivery. Instead, it’s restructured into a nearly Celtic folk-inspired reverie complete with a country fiddle. The low-key brilliance of the lyrics shines in this new sparser form although it lasts twice as long with an instrumental break, making the song a whopping six and a half minutes. 

Perhaps the most unlikely source material is from the jazz-rock album Aja by Steely Dan, taking on “Deacon Blues” with Bill MacKay. Somehow, they make it more languid and dreamy with pretty guitar flourishes throughout and the harmonies taking on a more folk cum bossa nova edge. Now to be clear, if you aren’t enjoying the album thus far, the second half may not get you onboard but the tone shifts to being more wistful and bittersweet.

“Sea Song,” an experimental and avant-garde art-rock original song by Robert Wyatt, from his breakthrough solo album Rock Bottom, is honored fully here with help from Mick Turner. One thing that is noticeable compared to previous tracks is the addition of a prominent organ and the singing style becomes a bit more impassioned, as if they are crying out. The long instrumental portion of the song is expertly recreated. While it sounds more modern as a whole, it is among the more faithfully arranged tracks on the album on a musical level, and much of the change is in the vocal delivery and background hollering when the lyrics pause. 

Perhaps the most obscure song, on an album loaded with them, is a take on an obscure and hushed soul and rock tune called “Miracles” by the late Johnnie Frierson. Their version is aided by one of the bigger gets on the album, 2000s garage rock legend Ty Segall. The original’s instrumentation is just guitar backing and is, frankly, anemically produced. The Blind Date Party has a more fuzzy and glossily produced backing, which makes a once sparse song a full-scale production with lushsax and synths. It’s almost as if Ty completely takes over the song instrumentally as it morphs into a modern space rock classic. 

Bill Callahan and Bonnie Prince Billy Blind Date Party, Drag City 2022

Later in Blind Date Party is a cover with Cassie Berman of Silver Jews, of the David Berman-penned song ”The Wild Kindness” from American Water with beautiful harmonies throughout and taking on a sadder tone than in the original, given that they are mourning the monumental loss of David. It can be easily argued that this is the centerpiece of the album.  It very much sounds like a full rock band recording and not an acoustic and hushed take on the classic indie country staple.  

With these and many other tracks being highlights, I should be frank that the album is not without flaws and the next and second to last song is a huge treacly misfire as they take on the Air Supply song “Lost in Love” with Emmett Kelly on board. They make it almost too faithful to the sappy original and add little meaning to make it work. Bill Callahan’s talk song vocals don’t quite mesh with the source material as country guitar backing brings it down a notch. This song aside, as well as its herculean and excessive length, mar an otherwise excellent exercise in grief and loss. 

If you are a fan of under-the-radar indie folk and country, I highly recommend buying this album. To get your money’s worth, check out the fantastic source material as well.

 

VIDEO: Blind Date Party Commercial

 

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David Richman

David Richman is a writer and improvisational comedian living in Baltimore, MD.

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