Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Fresh air

Life after Smog with Bill Callahan
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Bill Callaghan
Photo by Joanna Newsom

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"I could tell you about the river," Bill Callahan bellows on "From the Rivers to the Ocean," the opening salvo of his most recent record, Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City). There's a pregnant pause, he drops his voice between ascending piano chords — "Or ..." — and then a sweet melody buoys the rest of the line, "... we could just get in." After filing 11 albums as Smog or (smog), Callahan begins the first recorded under his own name with a promise of directness, a promise that specifically harks back to Smog's previous full-length, 2005's A River Ain't Too Much to Love (Drag City). That album's patterned evocations of nature and memory signaled a deep, inchoate sense of regeneration. These currents seem more matter-of-fact on the gospel-flavored Woke on a Whaleheart. Take, for instance, the first single, "Diamond Dancer," a limber bar band groove that opens with the dreamy nursery rhyme "She was dancing so hard/ She danced herself into a diamond/ Dancing all by herself/ And not minding."

Of course, with Callahan things are never so simple. In that same opening verse of "From the Rivers to the Ocean," he exhorts, "Have faith in wordless knowledge." It's a clear sentiment made less so by the voice delivering it: a voice for which language is all, a means to both intimate and deflect. This push-pull is essential to Callahan's aesthetic and a big part of why his records are the kind of constant companions whose grooves you wear out. I ask him by e-mail about his connection to the album format, and he writes back, "There will be an exciting time when us album makers will be Mad Max types, battling over the only analog recording equipment and vinyl pressing plants left in the world. This has already started.... Steve Albini bought all the remaining stock of paper leader in the world.... He gave me enough maybe to last the rest of my life, as long as I don't go crazy with it."

Meaning, I suppose, that there's still plenty of Callahan to come, a fact that should not be taken for granted. After all, many of his contemporaries didn't make it through the murk of '90s indie irony — a notable exception being Callahan's Drag City labelmate Will Oldham. Callahan was readily heralded in those years for Smog albums like 1997's Red Apple Falls and 1999's Knock-Knock (both Drag City), but it often seemed a kind of backhand praise, with critics reductively categorizing Callahan's music as downcast or deadpan — the same simplistic tropes attributed to Jim Jarmusch's independent films.

Even for those of us paying closer attention to the gradual refinements across Callahan's discography, though, A River Ain't Too Much to Love still had the feeling of a gauntlet being thrown: a powerfully cohesive suite of songs brought off by a newly confident voice, fuller in timbre and all the more steeped in Callahan's sly sense for forthright obfuscation. If that recording was the watershed for a surprising second act, Woke on a Whaleheart shows the newly Smog-less Callahan in a loose, expansive mood. The album's a grower, and while I'm not wholly taken with Neil Michael Hagerty's glitzy production, it's nice sensing that Callahan feels at home enough in his voice to open it up to some more varied collaborations.

I ask him, foolishly perhaps, if he feels like he has a fuller sense of himself after completing these records. "I don't reckon so," he replies. "It's more like a chess move.

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