‘Palimpest’, from A River Ain’t Too Much To Love (2005)
As room-rattling baritones go, Bill Callahan’s is particularly droll, distinctive and straight-forwardly affecting. With his sonorous Marylandian rumble, he could pass for the voice of George W. Bush’s wholesome American deity of choice, if it wasn’t for the bleak and ever-gnomic sentiments he uses it to convey.
Atheism, alienation, and isolation are essayed with a numbing nonchalance and spiky black humour, lyrics sung over starkly simple guitar chords. But even within existential alternative country there’s room for occasional lushness. Callahan’s songs abound with rivers, mountains, wide open spaces, horses, birds and animals in general, which, combined with the lonesome cowboy figure provided by the man himself, create a musical landscape that’s distinctly American.
Operating under the suitably enigmatic moniker ‘Smog’, Callahan emerged in the early 1990s as a leading light of lo-fi, a back-to-basics musical movement that prioritised the crackly authenticity of old cassette tapes over high production values and flawless musicianship.
His earliest recordings were influenced by inscrutable Texan ‘Jandek’ (whether Jandek is the name of the individual producing the music or of his project as a whole isn’t clear, since he often just calls himself ‘A Representative From Corwood Industries’) an artist so wilfully inaccessible that he makes Captain Beefheart look like Barry Manilow.
Over time, he settled into the (relatively) conventional, albeit still dark and individualistic country singer-songwriter mould he occupies to this day, having ditched the pseudonym, and began singing, touring and putting out records as plain old Bill Callahan. The results are usually mordant, spiky, and touchingly simple, and, sometimes, beautiful.
Here he performs three choice cuts – ‘Jim Cain, ‘Rococo Zephyr’ and ‘Too Many Birds’ – from his critically-lauded, arguably best album, 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, for National Public Radio in the States.
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