It’s difficult to listen to The Marble Downs, a collaboration between Glaswegian folk troupe Trembling Bells and alt/Americana icon Will Oldham without laughing. It is also very important that this is a compliment to an ambitious, audacious, preposterous — and wonderful — album.
The orbits of Oldham and Trembling Bells have overlapped in various ways before, and it’s not hard to understand what they hear in each other. Both are steeped in the traditions of folk music, but both manage the difficult trick of directing that knowledge to bold creation rather than, as is often the case with modern folk, pious curation. Of the tracks on The Marble Downs, only the a cappella “My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him” evokes uncomfortable images of cardigans and sandals.
The rest is an unalloyed hoot. A reading of “Riding,” by earlier Oldham incarnation Palace Brothers, is decorated with an exuberant electric guitar part reminiscent of Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar.” The longer tracks, “I Made A Date (With An Open Vein)” and “Lord Bless All” are wild, weird excursions in prog-folk, the equal of anything on, say, The Decemberists’ The Hazards Of Love. “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing” is seven giddy, glorious minutes of a pastoral psychedelic mini-opera which suggests Fairport Convention tackling Meat Loaf and turns out to be a much better idea than that sounds.
Sensibly, the overload is leavened with moments of exquisitely deadpan humor: Oldham and Lavinia Blackwall’s duet on the falling-out-of-love song “I Can Tell You’re Leaving” summons the always welcome specters of Lee Hazlewood and Ann-Margret slurring their way through “The Cowboy & the Lady.” The result may be quite the maddest album released in 2012. It will assuredly be one of the best.