Sat Aug 27
830 E Burnside
AS THE EVIL INTERNET threatens to usurp touring as the way to promote your schtick, Smog's Bill Callahan remains elusive. You won't find a Bill Callahan blog or a homesite or even a MySpace page. Like the Beach Boys sang, Callahan wasn't made for these times. But he's not just a pre-dot-com throwback—he's also a 10-years-too-early visionary. As people like Devendra get famous for playing quiet, ancient-sounding folk-souped-up-modern, Callahan is all "been there, done that." I like to think of Callahan and modern music like the two proverbial cartoon dogs. One—the jowly bulldog—under-biting and stoic, and the other, a teeny teacup yapper yipping at its heels saying, "What are we gonna do next, Spike?! Huh?! Huh?! Huh?!"
Callahan's new Drag City release, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, recorded at Willie Nelson's studio, is a spooky slice of lo-fi cherry pie. As piano (played on one track by Callahan's pal Joanna Newsom) and drums (light-brushed by Dirty Three's Jim White) waltz and sway, you hear echoes of old America, of ghosted country singers like Hank Williams and wild-eyed blues howlers like Lonnie Johnson. But there's no blues, no real country to be found. It's all in the mood, hinted at rather than played or sang.
On the sixth track, Callahan goes for the traditional "In the Pines." The song is five minutes of pure big chill, detached but passionate in its restraint—simple, but warm and almost happy-sounding. (It's the dead-on antithesis to Kurt Cobain's aching Unplugged version.) "Running the Loping" is a waltz, its vocals spoken, with a barely-there melody behind them.
"Say Valley Maker" is a mild-voiced Johnny Cash—or maybe Damien Jurado. "I'm New Here" has two tinny, muffled guitars picking around each other, while Callahan baritones, "No matter how far wrong you've gone/you can always turn around." Callahan, then, hasn't gone wrong often—especially on this perfect little record—and hasn't had much need to turn around. He's stayed the same, while music's forgotten him, dumped press on him for a while, left him behind, and—just recently—evolved up to make his music "relevant" again. Does he care? I'm gonna guess not a whole lot.