Music

Bill Callahan: Woke on a Whaleheart

Callahan ditches the Smog moniker and delivers a surprisingly upbeat collection, though one that in the end feels a little slight.


Bill Callahan

Woke on a Whaleheart

Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: 2007-04-09
Amazon
iTunes

Stepping out from behind the Smog moniker, under which he has recorded for nearly two decades, Bill Callahan sounds on this album to be in surprisingly jaunty form. His lugubrious, baritone voice and wry asides remain, but he sounds more upbeat than ever before. No doubt much of this will be attributed to his settled relationship with harpist Joanna Newsom, and some will be disappointed at the relative absence of his usual morosely dark humour and the greater use of instrumentation, but for the most part it's still a Smog album, albeit one where a watery sunshine is breaking through the clouds.

Ex-Royal Trux member Neil Hagerty pitches in on the production and arrangements, which are noticeably more ornate than on previous releases. Strings feature heavily as well as gospel singers and a much greater use of piano than ever before. The shimmering violins on "Night" recall Scott Walker's "It's Raining Today", and on "Footprints" the slashing strings employed to propel the tune along are in the vein of Brian Eno's early work with Roxy Music. The soulful "Diamond Dancer", with its incessant driving bass line, is a distant cousin to the Stones disco-homage "Miss You". I suspect that this track will prove to be the most problematic for long-term Smog fans used to his usual pared-down approach.

The centerpiece of the album is the delightfully simple yet ornately arranged "Sycamore", which is one of the most elegant songs he has ever recorded. Those seeking a hit of Callahan's misanthropy will not find it here. "There's sap in the trees if you tap 'em," he sings, and later, "Christian / if you see your Papa tell him I love him." The song seems to be an older man's words of wisdom passed down in aphorisms to a young friend: "Sycamore got to grow down to grow up." It's a song that radiates content without ever sounding the least bit smug or self-satisfied. His voice sounds richer and warmer than on his last somewhat sparse and wintry release A River Ain't Too Much to Love, recalling instead Supper's "Feather by Feather", but without that song's tinge of sadness and regret.

Opener "From the Rivers to the Ocean" provides a run through of Callahan's stock water imagery, with a tune that actually resembles waves crashing on the beach: a chorus-less building of piano crescendos followed by quiet dissolves. "A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man" is a briskly old fashioned, country-tinged campfire sing-along.

At nine songs, Woke on a Whaleheart feels a tad too brief, too slight even. That impression is augmented by the quiet, undemonstrative tone of many of the songs. Lyrically the album breaks no new ground; the gentle homilies at times make you wish for his earlier dark edge. That said, this is still a deft piece of work by a deeply original and honest songwriter whose work is audibly softening as he approaches middle-age, his previous misanthropy giving way to quiet reflection.

6

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image