offbeat, off-key, on a roll
Palace Brothers (Drag City)
Palace Brothers

By Jeff Walter

I can almost imagine Louisville's Palace Brothers as a couple of laidback friends sitting in my den, strumming their acoustic guitars and singing the strange, plaintive little songs they wrote just hours ago.

Their voices crack, they end songs abruptly and I'm never sure how seriously to take them. But I'm quite comfortable with them and I sometimes sing along because, among friends, it doesn't matter if your voice cracks.

Don't get me wrong. The Palace Brothers are not my friends. I know next to nothing about them, since these guys seem to thrive on mystery. I'm told that they are singer-songwriter Will Oldham and guitarist Dave Pajo and that they actually played Lollapalooza. But all I really know is that I've been listening a lot to their new, self-titled CD. Like a friend, it can be puzzling and frustrating, but it has established a comfortable relationship with my boombox.

The underexposed cover photograph offers no clue to the Brothers' identity and no lyrics or liner notes are included. All you've got to go by, really, is ten starkly recorded acoustic cries for help and, ironically, understanding. In these songs, friendship and love are greeted with ambivalence. "When you have no one, no one can hurt you," Oldham sings on the album-opening "You Will Miss Me When I Burn."

Biblical themes and language abound in places; elsewhere, subject matter ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the chorus of "Pushkin," Oldham repeats, like a mantra, "God is the answer ... God lies within." One song later, both Brothers literally bark a couple of times on "Come a Little Dog," which is more yelped than sung.

"I Send My Love to You" is a beautiful, if somewhat nonsensical plea of unrequited love ("The moon is falling, the wounds are calling, my head is bleeding and I'm a duck.") Thunder rumbles ominously in the background of "No More Workhorse Blues," which Oldham concludes with a triumphant bellow: "I am a racing horse, I am a grazing horse, I am your favorite horse."

While there may be some deep lyrical thoughts at work, I won't pretend to understand most of them. Besides, they're often presented in such an offhand manner as to call their sincerity into question.

In short, this low-tech CD is intriguing, compelling, mysterious, bewildering and sometimes frustrating. Why no lyrics sheet, for example? It seems the Pal Brothers are being very careful not reveal too much about themselves. 1 now, we'll have to be content with these blurry but captivating snapshots.