Various Artists

I Am a Cold Rock, I Am Dull Grass: A Tribute to Will Oldham [2 disc]

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I Am a Cold Rock, I Am Dull Grass may not have been the first tribute disc in 2004 to honor Will Oldham, but it was the first one to do so without Oldham appearing on it in any of his incarnations -- Palace, Palace Songs, Palace Music, Palace Brothers or even Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Oldham's latest alter ego reinvented his older, sparser self with a set of slick remakes on Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Palace Music, thereby beating Tract Records to the punch, but the effort from the unheralded little Indiana label is actually a far more interesting take on the indie icon's idiosyncratic songs. Tract used a mix of Oldham's established fellow indie travelers and a group of lesser-known admirers (handpicked from an open call for submissions) to craft a marvelously diverse take on Oldham's catalog. (Most of the open-call selections were found on a limited-release second disc available only with the first 500 copies.) While some of the lesser-known artists' versions sound quite promising (particularly Jeffrey Luck Lucas' "Agnes, Queen of Sorrow," Diana Darby's "Valentine's Day," and Joel Martin's "Wolf Among Wolves"), the real treats are the reverential versions turned in by the more familiar players. Calexico's desert noir take on "I Send My Love to You" recalls the Tucson collective's sublime acoustic ballads on Aerocalexico; Iron & Wine's Sam Beam shows his natural affinity with Oldham's Gothic side by simply transporting "We All, Us Three, Will Ride," further South; Pinetop Seven's cover of "A Minor Place" gives the gloomy Bonnie "Prince" Billy dirge a joyous makeover replete with banjo, strings and full chorus. Sorry About Dresden ("All Gone, All Gone"), Scout Niblett ("Trudy Dies") and Adrian Crowley ("West Palm Beach") also turn in unorthodox and vibrant versions. It's almost impossible not to think of other acts -- both new and old -- you'd like to hear take a crack at Oldham, but this humble little collection of 30 songs confirms that he is one of the finest songwriters, a national treasure whose stark and profound minor-key laments prove universal under any adaptation.

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