|by Hanly Banks Callahan|
ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
June 9, 2019
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
You might not think to connect the two: The lo- or no-fi, sometimes experimental noise of early Smog, and the pastoral, bare bones stuff of Bill Callahan. At some point they do meet, most fully on 2005's A River Ain't Too Much To Love, following which the Austin artist saw fit to discard the Smog moniker and continue under his birth name, to continue his sonic evolution to its natural conclusion. After 2013's Dream River, Callahan retreated into domesticity, embracing a new identity as a husband and a father. It's not uncommon that an artist takes a couple years to find their way back out, perhaps struggling a little to recover their writerly traction after so long off the road. Bill Callahan has emerged from his familial hiatus by writing a real-life record, a double-LP collection named Shepherd In a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City, June 14).
The twenty songs on his new record still sound like Bill Callahan, from his trademark laconic delivery to his only-the-essentials arrangements. His wry lyrical observations and poetic asides remain keen, though these days they're directed primarily towards life on the homefront. And it sounds like he didn't stray far from his living room to record. He begins "Shepherd's Welcome" with a drawled greeting: Well it's been such a long time / Why don't you come on in. It's been quite awhile since Callahan played with noise, jamming sounds and found instruments into his sonic space. But he steps ever further back from those days, surrounding himself with a select few instruments and fitting them into shorter songs, some of them seeming fragments or ideas. Nevertheless, Shepherd never comes across as lazy or unfinished. Tracks flow gracefully from one to the next, and the album is best consumed as a whole rather than in pieces.
Bill Callahan's baritone might be shocking to the uninitiated, a croon like that of Lambchop's Kurt Wagner or David Berman from the Silver Jews. He's not ungraceful, however, capable of bending notes and singing around the beat as in"Angela", a jazz-inflected number that features drops of keyboard, plucked bass and a tease of brushed percussion. He is a writer fascinated by the sounds of words and phrases: Angela / Like motel curtains we never really met. Few of these pieces are constrained by verse-chorus-verse patterns, as Callahan stretches and slows and stops, repeating lines and making adjustments midsong as in "Ballad of the Hulk". Tinny click drums contrast with Brian Beattie's fluid bass as the singer likens himself to Bruce Banner: Oh I try to be a good person / I wonder if it's annoying / Or worth pursuing / And pursuing / Down highways / At the risk of the road.
I've read that Callahan's lyrics appear first, poems which he then sets to music. Because settings can be sparse and largely acoustic, he's considered a folk artist though even in his more pastoral pieces there's nothing especially trad or backward looking. He addresses the process of rediscovering his voice on "Writing", one of the cuts featuring subtle swaths of pedal steel. It feels good to be writing again, Callahan sings. Clear water flows from my pen. The song closes with the sound of wind chimes. "747" is one of Shepherd's fuller arrangements, a lovely if unconventional account of a soul being delivered into the world: I woke up on a 747 / Flying through some stock footage of heaven.
Rooted in the hard realities of home, there are recurring references to marriage and to the birth of Bass, his boy. This house is full of life, the singer reflects on "Son of the Sea". And life is change. One country-leaning song is titled "Watch Me Get Married". "What Comes After Certainty" follows the betrothed home after the honeymoon, through the kitchen door and toward domestic bliss: I never thought I'd make it this far / Little old house, recent model car / And I got the woman of my dreams. Callahan evokes Willie Nelson on one of the CD's humorous asides: I signed Willie's guitar when he wasn't looking.
Shepherd In a Sheepskin Vest relaxes comfortably over four sides, neither overlong nor indulgent. It's music that lands easy on the ears, but maintains an unexpected edge and a cutting sense of humor. Bill Callahan has always been gracious and deeply thoughtful, a practitioner of both the zen koan and the pastoral psalm. Life on the homefront has given him time away from the road, granting him space to reset his agenda, to accustom his ears to the new surroundings. He mythologizes his own origin story in "Young Icarus": From a hill behind a gas station in Scranton / I could see the old ways stitching out in their graves / And I thought but didn't say / Woman ain't it glorious. Glorious indeed.
- John Moreland, "You Don't Care Enough For Me to Cry" Spotify Sessions (Spotify, 16)
- River Arkansas, "Gone in the Morning" Any Kind of Weather (31 May, 19) D
- Chris Stalcup & the Grange, "Better With You" Long Way Home EP (Stalcup, 19)
- TK & the Holy Know-Nothings, "Devil's Point" Arguably OK (Mama Bird, 19)
- Sarah Shook & the Devil, "Follow You Home" Seven (Shook, 13)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "16-20" Out of Sight (Paradise of Bachelors, 19)
^ Bill Callahan, "Call Me Anything" Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City, Jun 14)
- Whitney, "Giving Up" Forever Turned Around (Secretly Canadian, Aug 30) D
- Okkervil River, "Get Big" Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar, 05)
- Jesse Malin, "Room 13" Sunset Kids (Wicked Cool, Aug 30) D
- Hollis Brown, "Stubborn Man" Ozone Park (Mascot, 19)
- Grady Spencer & the Work, "With Me" Celebrate (Spencer, 19)
- Fruit Bats, "Bottom of It" Gold Past Life (Merge, Jun 21)
- Wailin' Jennys, "Some Good Thing" Firecracker (Jennys, 06)
- Chris Staples, "River in Reverse" Holy Moly (Barsuk, Jun 28)
- Fernando Viciconte, "Hey Darlene" Traitors Table (Fluff & Gravy, Jun 21)
- Larry & His Flask, "Long Way to Go" Everything Besides (Extra Mile, Jul 19) D
- Scott H Biram & Jesse Dayton, "Single Again" single (Bloodshot, 19)
- Shane Smith & the Saints, "Whirlwind" Hail Mary (Geronimo West, Jun 28)
- Buddy & Julie Miller, "Till the Stardust Comes Apart" Breakdown on 20th Ave. South (New West, Jun 21)
- Ian Noe, "Junk Town" Between the Country (National Treasury, 19)
- Jeffrey Foucault, "Americans in Corduroys" Ghost Repeater (Signature Sounds, 14)
- LeeRoy Stagger, "Great Unraveling" Me and the Mountain (High Romance, 19)
- Frankie Lee, "Only She Knows" Stillwater (Frankie Lee, 19)
- Calexico w/Iron & Wine, "Midnight Sun" Years to Burn (Sub Pop, Jun 14)
- Courtney Hartman, "Won't Be Satisfied" Ready Reckoner (Reckoner, Jun 14)
- Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, "Save a Little Heartache" Turn Off the News (Build a Garden) (Fantasy, Jun 14)
- Lee Moses, "I'm Sad About It" How Much Longer Must I Wait (Future Days, 19)
- Justin Townes Earle, "Over Alameda" Saint of Lost Causes (New West, 19)
- Emmylou Harris, "Hickory Wind" Blue Kentucky Girl (Warner, 79)
Night 'n day. Rain 'n shine. Sickness 'n health. We're adding new stuff just about all the time to A Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster, our diabolically attractive roots music release calendar. This week we shared info about an August collaboration between Marc Cohn and Blind Boys of Alabama. Larry & His Flask set July 19 as the debut of their odds 'n sods record, Everything Besides. Smooth Hound Smith is planning Dog in a Manger for later this Summer, and Howlin' Moons frontwoman Angela Perley calls her forthcoming CD 4:30, named after the time she typically heads to bed (I'm assuming this is 4:30 am, rather than pm ...). Finally, Whitney's 2016 Light Upon the Lake left me eager for a follow-up, which we'll finally be seeing in late August, Forever Turned Around. You'll hear more on this week's ROUTES-cast: