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Songs to Learn and Sing

Ned Oldham and Co. Try to Keep it Simple

Jack Carneal (left) and Ned Oldham of Anomoanon

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By Lee Gardner | Posted

Ned Oldham says he's the furthest thing from an "Irish-ophile"--he thinks that the Irish, in general, "get away with murder," and he has a few choice words for the current era's foremost professional Paddy, Angela's Ashes author Frank McCourt. But there is one thing the recent Baltimore-by-way-of-Birmingham, Ala. transplant admires about the over-admired Irish culture. In Ireland, "if you're in a room and someone starts singing a song, everybody can join in because they all know the song," he says. "It's a sad thing that it can't be that way here."

The recent Baltimore transplant and his band the Anomoanon have spent much of the last decade doing their part to try to remedy that situation. Musically, the band draws from the traditions of the members' native South without succumbing to the reactionary pastiche so common among the alt-country posse. Instead, the Anomoanon's shambling, folkish sound bears comparison with the likes of the Grateful Dead, the Band, or even the Meat Puppets--groups that drew from various roots musics but created their own peculiar blend. Most important of all are Oldham's songs, which try to bring back that most honorable tradition: the well-crafted tune that anyone who hears it can understand and enjoy. "Plain dealing, I think, is pretty important for lyrics," he says. "Irony's pretty cool, but it might have worn out its welcome a little bit. It's hard to sing along with irony."

The Anomoanon's history reads like the story of any longstanding group of friends who happen to play musical instruments. Singer/guitarist Oldham and bassist Willy MacLean grew up and played in bands together in Louisville, Ky. While attending the University of Virginia in the late '80s, Oldham met guitarist Aram Stith, who brought his younger brother, keyboardist Jason, into the fold. A few years later, Oldham befriended fellow Virginia master's-degree candidate Jack Carneal and discovered that he played the drums. Though often separated by several states, the then-nameless fivesome continued to play music together whenever it could. (Carneal recently joined Oldham as a Charm City resident.)

The group got a big boost in 1994 from another tight bond when Ned's younger brother Will, then the sole full-time member of the Palace Brothers, asked the band to back him on a summer jaunt that included more than a dozen Lollapalooza dates. Suddenly the band, which had never toured before, found itself in the lead-off spot on the traveling alt-culture fest's second stage, Carneal recalls, "playing at 1 o'clock in the afternoon to these kids who had come to see the Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins."

The Anomoanon (a neologism coined by Carneal and Ned Oldham) has played with Will Oldham several times since, as backing band and/or opening act, but the group quickly set itself apart creatively, not only from Ned's brother but also from most indie-oriented bands. Its 1998 debut album, Mother Goose, consisted entirely of the sometimes-grim Mother Goose fairy tales set to music. Ned Oldham says he was drawn to write tunes for the verses in part because they contain rich material for any songwriter: "Violence, revenge, unexplained tragedy--you don't need much more." "It was exciting to find that this work of literature for children had this breadth of experience that's completely missing from children's entertainment today," Carneal, a father of two, adds. The band found it so exciting that it went on to record and release an album of Oldham-penned adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses in 2000.

"It might be telling that the two pieces of literature that we've put to music have been very elementary things--you're not going to miss the point," Oldham says. "It's not Ulysses."

Oldham's original songs found their way to a single and the '99 Summer Never Ends EP, but the Anomoanon's recent self-titled album (released, like all Anomoanon recordings, on Will Oldham's locally based Palace Records imprint) offers evidence of a writing breakthrough. Over the band's loose-limbed amble, Ned Oldham delivers both simple, happy tales of travel (the opening "Going to the Sea") and darker tales of mayhem on the road ("Camp") in the same boyish warble. The only conceivable irony on the album lies in the way the amiable music sometimes sounds sunnier than the lyrics it accompanies, such as on the obsessive love song "Baby, It's You." But from the yearning "Wonder Better" to the admonishing "Expect Snakes," The Anomoanon sports 10 simple, artful sing-along tunes that nonetheless manage to avoid simplemindedness.

The band is set to take the songs on the road for an upcoming minitour as opening act and backing group for Louisvillian David Pajo, aka Papa M, and the group plans to release another batch on a new album next year. In the meantime, Oldham's wife is expecting their second child this November.

Listening to the two old friends sitting around talking about writing and music, it's not too tough to see how Oldham and Co.'s organic approach to their band and their music helps them keep working and improving. "We never sent demos to big record companies," Oldham acknowledges. "At this point, we're just happy to have the time to play 40 or 50 shows a year and make records and fit it in with the rest of our lives. The fewer the expectations we have, the better it gets."

The Anomoanon plays the Ottobar with Papa M and Suntanama on Aug. 27.

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