Reviews

Bill Callahan

Vijith Assar

Free of his smog. moniker, Bill Callahan searches for new ground on which to lay his guitar and shaker. The question: can he survive the search, and, if he does, is there any uncharted land left?

Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan

City: Charlottesville, VA
Venue: Gravity Lounge
Date: 2007-09-04

Major keys do nothing for Bill Callahan. Even his slighter songs -- "River Guard," for example, in which the narrator describes the building excitement of his prisoners as they're unshackled for a swim -- resonate with a weight that just can't be countered by upbeat melody. Sparseness and solitude lend themselves well to the two-man band versions he performed a year ago when he last visited the Gravity Lounge. Supported by a long-haired junkyard percussionist and a small keyboard, Callahan wandered across the smog. songbook with an acoustic guitar. The point, it seemed, was that there's still uncharted territory to be found in the simple combination of guitar, shaker, and clever mind games. Tonight, however, he’s a different beast altogether. Woke on a Whaleheart was the first record he released under his own name, and, ironically enough, his return with a larger ensemble came only after dropping the band name. The logical inversion, of course, is that it can be a bit harder to see the man beneath the songs at times, but they're still put to good use -- Callahan's songs are fattened up as much by the violin and bass as by the drum fills and counterpoint. "Cold Blooded Old Times", in particular, is driven by biting octave dyads on a violin which, given its aggression, might as well be a distorted guitar. Eighth notes aren't swung, they're bludgeoned. Occasionally, he departs for more lighthearted territory, as in the wry "A Man Needs a Woman or a Man To Be a Man", which populates the empty spaces between chords with shaker, rimshots, and very little else. "Day" uses a bouncy bassline that seems almost out of character; you'd think his humor would be darker, but the song is genuinely spunky. It dies an abrupt death, though, stopping on the fourth beat of the final measure with no further resolution. Even if the enveloping song isn't quite typical Callahan, that sort of cliffhanger is exactly what makes him tick. Among musical philosophers and academics, some believe that the whole medium is just an exercise in tension and resolution. Callahan is clearly a master of the former -- even going full-bore, he'll last twenty minutes at a time without strumming a single chord completely. The spartan guitar lines he uses are instead simple wonders of pop composition -- they establish themselves surreptitiously, digging as deep as the ostinato figures in electronica -- and the beauty emerges only around bar 16 or 32. "Say Valley Maker" leans on those guitar lines for a fantastically prolonged introduction, after which the rest of the band finally explodes with enough support to carry Callahan across the finish line just as his gravelly baritone starts to turn into monotone. It's an intriguing context for his melancholy -- the minimalism is inherent in the compositions, four-piece band and arrangements notwithstanding -- and Callahan would still seem just as lonely no matter how many musicians he decided to bring along. Despite the company, stage banter is minimal. It isn't missed, though -- the stories tell themselves while Callahan sings. As his bassist smiles and starts playing the opening line to "Free Bird" after the inevitable audience request, however, Callahan cuts him off: "There's no way that's still funny," he chides, deciding to close with "The Well" instead. Perhaps it's just because of the supporting cast, but Callahan seems considerably more confident these days now that he's performing under his own name instead of as smog. His performance is every bit as haunting, though, and even with just a violin player, a mulleted percussionist with a xylophone, and a bassist who smirks as the intro to "Free Bird" squeaks out, his songs are still a lesson in heavy.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.