Bitchin Bajas & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties (Drag City)

A challenging mess of cosmic collaboration, and that’s ok

Released Mar 17th, 2016 via Drag City / By Henry Bainbridge
Bitchin Bajas & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties (Drag City) Bitchin Bajas & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy have put out one tough listen here. A slab of meditative, ambient weirdness. A stew of repetitive loose jams. It’s a frustrating mess and the kind of oddity that all healthy record collections should be littered with.

A quick catch-up: Bitchin Bajas are a mid-western experimental trio formed by Cooper Crain of psychedelic dronescapers Cave. Their psychedelia bent is also present with Bitchin Bajas but it’s an altogether calmer and warmer affair.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is quietly one of the greatest living American songwriters. Really. His full discography (as Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Will Oldham, and Bonnie Prince) is as smart and affecting as any other of the last 20 years. If you’ve missed his work until now, go dip into the collection. But probably don’t start here.

This record of ‘collaborative cosmic music’ is chiefly a series of six-minute-plus soundscapes, with vocal phrases easing in and out between pulsing synthesizers. There is an oppressive relentlessness to the looped guitar lines, synth pads and chanted vocals. An hour of this is hard work.

Perhaps the most glaring concern for this collaboration is that its sound is no more than the sum of its parts. A good stew should become something above its separate ingredients. Bitchin Bajas are uncharacteristically antsy and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is lyrically stunted. Fortune cookie aphorisms (actual ones) serve as the jumping off point for the vocals, and on some tracks they are the only lyric.

The early tracks can be hard to settle into; the guitar lines seem distracting against the synth pads, or perhaps vice versa. Despair is Criminal is the first breakthrough moment, where the album starts to feel comfortable with itself. There is space for the words to echo around amongst the swirling synths, it’s really lovely. Similarly, You Will Soon Discover How Truly Fortunate You Really Are is another nice moment where it all works together. Nine minutes of warmth.

Ultimately, there are certain records that are not designed for regular listening. Lightning Bolt and Death Grips come to mind. Anyone who says that they’re still listening to Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz is a liar.

It would be hard to listen ambivalently to this record; be confused by it, be consoled by it, get frustrated with it, be lifted by it … That’s the kind of record a healthy collection needs.