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Trembling Bells & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
The Bonnie Bells Of Oxford Scott McKeating , March 28th, 2013 08:03

Long tinselled-up as a snapshot of a band in some stage or other of transformation/stasis/golden line-up/etc, more often than not the live album is the mange covered, shaking, shitting runt of any band's discography. It's with a heavy spoonful of relief then that Trembling Bells, one of Britain's finest but least heralded eclectic folk rock bands, and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (aka Will Oldham) have captured something of their recurring collaborations and the energy of their brief 2012 tour.   Their choice to open the set with a skirt-hitching hybrid of the Bonnie Prince's '66' and The Bells' 'Just As the Rainbow' feels like an idea born more of collective mischief than anything like a collaborative tour compromise. Either way its strain of live rowdiness makes for a fantastic representation of the mixture of elements that makes up Trembling Bells' very particular DNA. Quite a packed formula it is too - folk rock's melody and narrative, country's raised eyebrow and romance, improv's looseness, the daring of 60s psychedelic rock and early music's musical economy. All of that hopefully makes the following description of the opener as a progressive rock madrigal with a roughened Celtic edge sound a little less ridiculous than it reads. Its performance sees Lavinia Blackwall's soprano voice and Manzarek keys vie for the MVP spot against Alex Neilson's spider-legged undulating drums, Oldham's fragile tenor and Mike Hastings' kosmische guitar. While The Bonnie Bells Of Oxford lacks the finesse of the Bells/Bonnie 2012 team-up album The Marble Downs that it draws much of its material from, it definitely adds a ragged fervour that the album didn't have.   With the songs being pretty evenly split between Oldham and Neilson compositions (with a traditional credit and a Merle Haggard cover thrown in); The Bonnie Bells of Oxford doesn't end up feeling like a lopsided or bumpy listen. Since Trembling Bells' 2009 debut Carbeth, Alex Neilson's song writing talents have been consistently criminally underrated. His frankly astonishing evolution from improvisational drummer for hire to classic English songwriter has still to be properly explored. From the kraut-psych-head nod pop of 'Ain't Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing' to the farewell of 'Love Is A Velvet Noose', Neilson is binding together strands of influence into that most difficult of forms - a song you want to hear because you enjoy it. The steely pop chime of 'Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart' is pure pop earworm mulch, Neilson's end of the road duet between Blackwall and Oldham doing classic guitar pop that's tip of the tongue familiar. Oldham peaks here as he slips his infamous paean to public oral sex 'So Everyone' into the set, after an equally suggestive traditional number 'My Husband's Got No Courage In Him' from Blackwall. Songs for every occasion it would seem. 

So, the live album. If The Bonnie Bells Of Oxfor has a discography spot, it's certainly available for that memento of the Bells/Bonnie live experience slot. More than that though, it's also a further dose of proof that Trembling Bells are a singularly tremendous band, a fact that seems to be taking its time making itself known.