Bill Callahan:Woke On A Whale Heart

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By: Dennis Cook

(Smog) this ain’t. Since 1988, Callahan, recording under the cheerless moniker (Smog), has churned out top-notch, dread-filled indie moodiness full of dangling philosophizing. 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was so heavy one felt compelled to put large stones in their pockets and wade into his black waves with funereal determination. Woke On A Whale Heart (Drag City) is a far sunnier affair. Well, at least as sunny as a bruised poet like Callahan can manage.

In a voice pitched somewhere between Leonard Cohen on a cough syrup bender and Lou Reed‘s New York talking blues, Callahan tells us about diamond dancers, honeymoon children and other strangely hopeful vagabonds of the western world. There’s something to this being his first full-length release under his own name. There’s less of him in shadow, more parts allowed breath and space.

Produced and (wonderfully) arranged by Royal Trux mastermind Neil Hagerty, these are great splatter factories of unexpected strings and perversely groovy bass, new elements entering like friends at a lively party, slipping in with a ripple rather than a splash. This innate flow – simple on the surface but capable of incorporating Farfisa, glockenspiel, lap steel, synths and more – sends the listener inner tubing along foamy waters.

“The Wheel” sounds like a rehearsal take, Callahan speaking each line before he sings it on this undeniably charming country kitchen jam. Though it’s not the well-loved Jerry Garcia tune it and album closer “A Man Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man” wouldn’t be out of place on Workingman’s Dead. Alternately, “Footprints” could be from Bowie’s Scary Monsters. In fact, Callahan goes up the hill backwards in several regards here.

They say Minnie The Moocher had a heart as big as a whale. So, maybe waking on such a pounding presence may beat even the Grinch’s swollen love muscle. Callahan seems renewed, his way lit by fireworks, as he tiptoes through his natural skepticism on this very fine new chapter in his long story.

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