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Bill Callahan - Woke On A Whaleheart

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Artist: Bill Callahan

Album: Woke On A Whaleheart

Label: Drag City

Review date: Apr. 16, 2007

Loosely constructed and casually delivered, Bill Callahan's latest solo effort is so laid back that it almost never gets going at all. Melodies meander, lyrics have, perhaps, a bit too much "faith in wordless knowledge," the whole thing feels evocative but shapeless, like a sketch for an album that hasn't quite been realized. Lyrics peter out at the end of lines and begin again after a pause, like Callahan is thinking aloud, and nothing is exactly set in stone. Consider the epiphany lodged in opener "From the Rivers to the Oceans," where Callahan observes "And that beautiful thing you said, lying in bed /about all the things I could think of at the end of the day." What exactly was that beautiful thing? No clue. Maybe if you have to ask, you don't deserve to know.

The music, produced alongside Neil Michael Hagerty, has the same sort of slippery evocativeness, never precise but sometimes hypnotic. In a few places, Callahan experiments with gospel and soul flourishes, slipping an angelic chorus into the interstices of the opening cut, and laying a bottom-heavy Stax heyday groove under "Footprints." Other tracks - "The Wheel" in particular - have a heavy country flavor, like Johnny Cash goofing with a pick-up band. Mostly the arrangements ebb and flow around Callahan's voice, circling in hallucinatory repetition around his distinctive croak.

The theme throughout is the transcendence of ordinary life, the casual comment made in bed that illuminates everything, the way that a girl absorbed in dancing can be transported out of the everyday world. No one gets ahead in Callahan's world by thinking too hard, but rather by going with the instinctual flow. "Learn from the animals," sings Callahan on the piano-banging, scale-ascending stomper "Day," a primary-colored homage to simple pleasures like family. The matched and more meditative "Night," which stretches out those piano chords into melancholy arpeggios, explores the other side of the equation. All those simple pleasures end in darkness, he observes, singing that "We do not know....where you go....in the night....through the door."

Not always, but sometimes, Callahan hits the exact balance that, I think, he's looking for, in songs that sound like they've been composed in real time, but with a casual, unthought-through grace that's better than forethought. "Sycamore" is damn near perfect, its luminous guitar-picking weaving in and around Callahan's voice, group choruses swelling at the interlude. It's a song written by a Zen master, unthinking and totally in the moment.

By Jennifer Kelly

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