Eerie, saturated synth lines start the song, straight off an '80s horror-flick soundtrack. The band settles into a pulsing, sinister shuffle. You've heard these words before, but never with this sense of emptiness and defeat: "Roy Orbison singing for the lonely / Hey that's me and I want you only / Don't turn me home again / I just can't face myself alone again."
The song of course is Springsteen's "Thunder Road," in a startling, necessary reinterpretation by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) and Tortoise -- a centerpiece in their collaborative covers album, The Brave and The Bold.
The project of pairing these two anomalies of indie music began over four years ago, with the idea of covering "Thunder Road" and Elton John's "Daniel," but turned into a larger project, recorded at the end of 2004. Since then, Tortoise has toured backing legendary producer Daniel Lanois, and Oldham has released Superwolf, a collaboration with guitarist Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan).
As the other anchor on the recording, "Daniel" is equally remarkable -- both tracks are "super mutants of music," as Tortoise's Dan Bitney says. If you played a sking CD of Paul Simon's Graceland through a tiny boombox with blown speakers while singing Elton's lyrics into an oil drum, you'd be getting close. Oldham's voice breaks a little on the high notes, and it sounds right. The whole package is a sound from outer space, or a warehouse in the bad part of town -- delicate while bombastic.
The rest of the record covers a broad swath, from Devo and The Minutemen to the pounding "Love Is Love" by Lungfish. Oldham sings in Brazilian Portuguese on "Cravo E Canela," by Milton Nascimento -- how convincingly, I'm not qualified to judge. As with most of Oldham's collaborations, he seems firmly in the driver's seat throughout.
The Dave Hanner song "Pancho" is particularly lovely, riding a creamy Fender Rhodes piano into mid-'70s Todd Rundgren ballad territory, while "Calvary Cross" (Richard Thompson) gets a Neil Young and Crazy Horse treatment. Appropriate, perhaps, since Oldham's perverse and wide-ranging talent places him at least in the running to be the Neil Young of his generation. But maybe it's just the shaky voice and appetite for surreal cover art.