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The Bonnie Prince, Onscreen And In Your Head

Will Oldham is an enigmatic folk-rock musician — and actor — who performs under various monikers, including Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and Bonnie Prince Billy. In addition to playing a part in a new film, Oldham has a new CD out: The Letting Go. Critic Will Hermes sees some similarities between the actor and the musician.

In Kelly Reichardt's wonderful new independent film, Old Joy, Oldham plays an aging stoner named Kurt, who is searching for a particular hot spring, among other things.

As a working musician, Oldham is known to plan tours around hot springs, and his new CD was recorded in Iceland, the most famous hot-spring region on the planet. In fact, he sounds like someone who has been soaking for a while in very warm water — especially on "Strange Form of Life."

Oldham's first notable acting role was as the teenage preacher in John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan, but he mostly abandoned acting in favor of indie rock, where over the past decade he has made strange, handsome, sometimes disturbing and often riveting music.

Oldham has been a major influence in the experimental folk music revival that's been dubbed "freak folk," probably for the way his music can sound simultaneously ancient and modern.

The Letting Go is one of Oldham's prettiest and most subtle records, and the title is telling. It took me a few listens to get into it, because you do need to "let go," as if — at the risk of overextending a metaphor — you were settling into a hot spring, letting its waters unwind your muscles and slow down your world.

A note to drivers: This is not music for listening to in your car-- unless you're in a hopeless traffic jam.

Oldham is known for intentionally under-rehearsing his groups, and The Letting Go has a raw, unfinished quality: Voices seesaw off pitch, or a discordant string section will pull unsteadily against the main rhythm.

But like his best records, there's a wonderful freshness to the performances here, a sense of players newly discovering the music just as a listener might, with things magically coming together or threatening to fall apart.

The music makes you pay attention not by shouting, but by beckoning, languidly, as Oldham's character does in the film Old Joy, inviting a friend to join him on a trip into the woods, just to see what's out there — and to see what's inside, too.

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