It's not that Randy Bickford and The Strugglers stand alone in awe of the Will Oldham legacy and the Drag City trademark. Oldham and his deftly whimsical something-like-folk are as important and influential as most anything released this past decade, and a horde of allegiant followers have emerged just past the glow of his battered six string. Just this year, for instance, Tract Records released a two-disc tribute to Oldham, convincing indie heavyweights like Iron & Wine, Calexico and Sorry About Dresden to contribute one cover apiece. The Strugglers, in fact, turned in a fine cover of "Riding" for that 30-band affair.
Bickford's Strugglers, though, do the Oldham-as-inspiration reel with a refreshed outlook, keeping the bearded leanings fresh through classicist doses of rock accessibility and blues despair.
For that distinction, Randy Bickford's voice is essential: Cracking and persistent, surviving though stranded, Bickford sings like a trouper struggling to make it in a world that seems destined to sidetrack him with the hurdles that euphemism has deemed "experience." His voice is devoid of irony, smothered in a road-tested sincerity that suggests these songs are either sermons or last words. As a vocalist, Bickford stumbles constantly, intimating that pain is principle inspiration, but that the redemption that follows is worthy remuneration.
His waver is devastating on the title track, dripping with ache as he proclaims, "Dead leaves are elegies / and no heart can resist their bloodlessness." In "Until I Slept," Bickford reaches an all-time low, moaning in desperate monotone: "Thank the Lord no one talks like films / I don't want my lips watched / In the hopes that someone gets killed." Lauren Moskowitz's piano references the twisted thoughts in Bickford's swimming head, as she rolls through faint, discordant patterns, consciously avoiding any sensible scale.
The redemption is quick coming, though. "All of this came to pass / A line of things God made to make you last / Standing in the garden on a bright day," he beams one track later for the closing "Bright Day." The song's uncanny On the Beach Neil Young swagger distinguishes it, instantaneously morphing pain into transcendent promise.
It's those '70s rock impulses that steer The Strugglers from today's lo-fi legion, infusing the work with a meaning and context that strays from the Oldham pantheon thanks to its one-up level of directness and conviction. Unlike Oldham, Bickford doesn't write stream-of-conscious whims into the songs as unabridged tropes; instead, he narrates in clipped storylines and elliptical pathways, interweaving stories of a busted eye and a broken heart into the perfect "Goodness Gracious."
That askance posturing elevates Bickford's personal vignettes past the point of clever. It's more of a revelation. And, if this EP is any indication, that's what The Strugglers are.
The Strugglers play with Ticonderoga and Ryan Pound at Bickett Gallery on Saturday, Dec. 18.