I’ve always been a folk dude, first and foremost, and among my favorite musicians of the genre are the wandering troubadour types who’ve left trails of discography in their wakes — from Neil, Joni and Bob to modern heirs such as Will Oldham, Jason Molina and Bill Callahan, formerly Smog. (And Ryan Adams, but I digress.) It was Callahan’s final album under his polluted nom de plume, 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, that hooked me on his dispassionate baritone — that, and the standout song “Drinking at the Dam,” which turned the album’s acoustic shuffling from intimate to majestic with its swaying backing vocals and well-placed piano accompaniment. Yet the song, like the album, has a kind of crisp, dry production that fits the song flawlessly; a more obvious reverb-soaking would’ve ruined it.
Such was the case on Callahan’s first album as just plain Bill, 2007 Nashvillized Woke on a Whaleheart, but Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle returns to that wonderful crispness, as well as “Drinking at the Dam’s” airier arrangements.
Nowhere is this more richly expressed than the album’s opening number, “Jim Cain,” a ponderously slow ballad that could almost pass for a Luna outtake with its glimmering electric guitars and gauzy strings. “I used to be darker / then I got lighter / then I got dark again,” he laments, and the rest of the album takes his direction — the songs are shadowy and sad, but in Callahan fashion, never maudlin. For all the gloom, though, the album concludes with the oddly upbeat “Faith/Void,” in which he sings, “It’s time to put God away.” As the strings swell and an electric guitar unspools, his self-satisfied vocals could be crooning a love song. Despite the name change, Callahan’s intentions are as hazy as ever — but the power of his music has never been more clear.
[Edit: The previous, incorrect title for this post listed the artist as Smog, Bill’s previous moniker.]
Bill Callahan – “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”: mp3
(Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is out now on Drag City)