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Album Mon Apr 23 2007

Bill Callahan, Woke on a Whaleheart

Current Texas resident Bill Callahan has been releasing lo-fi Americana under the moniker Smog for going on 18 years through local label Drag City, and developed quite a following doing it too. But with Woke on a Whaleheart, out this Tuesday, Callhan has chosen a different moniker: his own. No doubt it's freeing, in some sense, to finally name yourself as the originator of your art, though of course greater transparency does offer greater exposure to criticism. Callahan, however, is no stranger to self-criticism and doubt and Woke on a Whaleheart pulls no punches, staying true to the earnest, pointed stories he has recorded for years.

Musically, the album is what we have come to expect: simple progressions repeated to the breaking point, all smothered in Callahan's delicious croon. Like hearing Luna's Dean Wareham and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner chat over danish and a coffee, Callahan's sing-songy baritone moves from monotone hinting at melody to moments of on-key notability, pushing almost every song toward the five minute mark. The bar room stomp of single "Diamond Dancer" is a good example of Callahan's preferred song structure. Slightly up-beat drums keep the song moving while another background rhythm, here alternating between jangly guitar and a bouncing bass line, repeat consistently, with only a short choral change. With a slightly strained melody, Callahan immortalizes a woman alone on the dance floor for reasons known only to her, and tells us that she has danced so hard "she danced herself into a diamond." Another track that drills itself into your head is "Sycamore," where Callahan teases a vocal hook out of a drawn out melody based on the song's title. Bright reverb drenches the involved guitar picking that drives the song and, no doubt, The Clientele are smiling somewhere because of it. "Night," while clocking in at a short 3 minutes for Callahan, builds beautifully on a simple descending piano progression, adding sweet strings near the close to realize what is no doubt one of Callahan's best lullabies. The politically correct "A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man" takes a Johnny Cash-like song structure as the foundation for a meditation on love through an ode to fireworks. It sounds hokey, but Callahan's deep voice pulls it off. But even his voice can't save the call and response Pentecostal congregation inspiration behind "The Wheel," which sounds like a joke continually missing its punch line, or the grating melody and constant piano banging of "Day" which can best be described as unbearable.

While the album as a whole certainly isn't Callahan's best release to date, it's hardly a throw away either. Much like Callahan's exhortation in "From the Rivers to the Ocean," where he encourages the listener to "have faith in wordless knowledge," the best reaction to Woke on a Whaleheart is one of expectant trust - if you know the formula, you won't be disappointed.

[mp3] Sycamore - Bill Callahan

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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