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Bill Callahan – [Album]

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Friday, 04 May 2007
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A recent discussion went like this:

Me: Dude, Bill Callahan is playing with Jandek.

Female Friend: The only good thing Bill Callahan has done recently is to put it to Joanna Newsom.

Me: Are you kidding? His records keep getting better.

Female Friend: What? No way.

Me: Everything since Red Apple Falls has gotten better and better.

Female Friend: That's funny, because that's when I stopped listening.

Me: Knock Knock? Even the last one, A River Ain't Too Much to Love—these are amazing records.

Female Friend: Really? Okay, pick a song from the last record and play it for me.

Me: Okay.

(I let her hear "Rock Bottom Riser")

Female Friend: It's the same thing he's always done, but now it's like he can express himself better.

This (very real) conversation illuminates two different points about Bill Callahan. The first is that, although my friend said this dismissively, Callahan does in fact do the same thing he's always done, but with more expression. The second is that not once did we, in this conversation, use the word Smog. He's Bill Callahan. His first solo album under his own name does give him a bit of artistic license to branch out a bit, use a fuller band sound, throw in some gospel singers. But Callahan has is still working within the framework of "man with deep voice sings with guitar" that he set up with Julius Ceasar, but now he's just really good at it. While my friend feels that Callahan hasn't really done anything interesting since these early, harrowing days, I see him as progressing into one of (okay, queue up the grand ole' flag) the Great Songwriters of Today. Whaleheart gives us three glances into why this hyperbole might be correct in the form of "Sycamore." "From the Rivers to the Ocean," and "The Wheel"—three equally twisting, wheezing, slightly breezy full-band treatments that follow the lead of Callahan's natural song-speak style. In the songs, Callahan speaks plainly of wheels, rivers, trees—but with a careful consideration of each phrase.

"Well (pause) I could tell you about the river or (long pause) we could just get in."

He delivers "The Wheel" as if he's teaching himself an old campfire sing-a-long, speaking the lines to himself and singing them in time. Callahan's strength (which might actually work to his detriment for some) is that his songs are so expressive, but expressive of who or what, it's hard to say. They are revealing songs, but they give you no insight into just who the person is singing them. He's the perennial observer, framing familiar objects in new settings. He's not going to sing about making mix tapes for Joanna, but when he holds that one broken note on "Sycamore" for about two bars—well, that hits harder than anything else you could dream up.

Woke on a Whaleheart is out now on Drag City

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