'Woke on a Whaleheart' is the debut album from Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog. As Smog Bill Callahan has released many great albums including 'Red Apple Falls', 'Knock Knock', 'Dongs of Sevotion', 'Rain on Lens', and 'A River Ain't Too Much to Love.' This album appears to be a bit of a year zero, something distinct in his use of his own name and the dropping of the Smog-moniker - perhaps he's in a good place with his much reported relationship with Joanna Newsom, whose 'Ys' he contributed to last year (on the stunning epic 'Only Skin'). Perhaps 'Woke on a Whaleheart' should be played after 'Ys' to see if the records have an equal relationship?
Callahan had previously collaborated with Neil Michael Hagerty, once of Pussy Galore & Royal Trux and now of the Howling Hex, alongside figures such as John McEntire and Jim O'Rourke - Hagerty arranges and co-produces here, while Steve Albini gets mentioned on the sleeve too. It's been hard to keep up with Hagerty since the demise of Royal Trux, an array of solo recordings and writings have surfaced, this is probably the most consistent record he has been associated with since 'Pound for Pound' - it would be interesting if Hagerty's own records moved into this territory.
Opener 'From the Rivers to the Ocean' is a joy, close to the material on the last three Smog albums, and sounding close to the best of Lambchop - like the material on 'Ys' it veers off into other directions that feel quite organic, it sounds that Callahan has been listening to 'Song Cycle' too as the song goes from here to there; the song is extremely addictive and one of those songs I can just play on repeat, over and over and over...'Footprints' is an odd one, kind of acoustic and groovy at the same time, the music sounding like an alt-country Stones, while the backing vocals are fantastic - the kind of song you'd wish Elvis had recorded in his final years.
The rest of the album is great - 'Diamond Dancer' is equally gorgeous, the bass and lap steel a particular joy; while 'Sycamore' sounds how 'Naked' by Talking Heads should have sounded! 'The Wheel' is a jaunty joy that fuses in a field recording from Steve Bernal, kind of Callahan in Harry Smith mode and one that feels related to the devotional songs of Bonnie Prince Billy. 'Day' has the most interesting production Callahan's had since 'Dongs of Sevotion', a looped piano/percussion sound feels quite unusual; while the subsequent track 'Night' takes us into a sparse place with Callahan and piano, the song finally allowing strings/synths and some acoustics in - this is fighting for my favourite track with 'From the Rivers to the Ocean' at present. The album concludes on 'A Man Needs a Woman, or, A Man to be a Man', which is the kind of record you'd wish Bob Dylan would record - it feels quite old school in parts, a Johnny Cash vibe set against some gorgeous violin sounds (not sure its violin or strings, but sounds like it). It feels like a punkier relative of Wilco's 'Dreamer in My Dreams' as it speeds up towards the end - heck, imagine Bonnie Prince Billy fronting a Pogues tribute band?
Callahan's work as Smog has always been great, so he's never really had to return to form - his debut as 'Bill Callahan' is as great, 'Woke on a Whaleheart' sounding better with each listen. No doubt, 'Woke on a Whaleheart' is one of the highlights of 2007 and I have no qualms saying that it'll be in my ten favourite albums of this year, come December. Me likes it...
on 23 March 2007
Having begun as Smog, switched to (smog), moved back to Smog, Bill Callahan is, finally, just Bill Callahan. Having hidden behind the Smog moniker and dressed passion in dispassionate delivery for nearly two decades, Callahan's reputation is enigmatic, but, addressed by his own name, he's no longer such an enigma. In fact, on the single Diamond Dancer, he admits, "It's time I gave the world my life."
The change of name might mean a more candid Callahan but his iconic baritone and the cutting inflection that straddles perfectly the line between self-depreciation and self-parody are unchanged. The beautiful prose of tracks like Footprints ("where the footprints end / we must have flown") is coupled with wry wit, as on From The Rivers To The Ocean ("we got in the river and it groped us / made us think of sex between us").
Taking care of the arrangements is Neil Michael Hagerty, whose garage sensibilities further the Nashville sound of the last Smog album, A River Ain't Too Much To Love, to give Callahan a country outlaw edge. While it's true that Woke On A Whaleheart follows the gentler path that he began to forge with 2003's Supper, the new album is even more compelling than his earlier, more subversive material.
Sycamore, with backing gospel vocals from Deani Pugh-Flemmings of the Olivet Baptist Church choir, could easily be a Stax recording; the captivating Night features gorgeous piano from Howard Draper; while Callahan provides himself with a verbal cue on On The Wheel, speaking each line before he sings it.
Having worn many aesthetic masks throughout his career, Callahan has made his best album without wearing one at all. No longer inscrutable, but never easy, Woke On A Whaleheart snatches at the same painful honesty we haven't seen from him since The Doctor Came At Dawn.
on 11 May 2007
I'm not mad about tracks 2 and 3, but the rest of this album is excellent. Different to previous Smog releases, but clearly a development from them in terms of Bill Callahan's masterful song writing. Kind of countryish with perfectly placed backing vocals and violin and Callahan's characteristic simple vocal delivery, this is a really great album.
on 2 February 2010
Awesome! Before Mojo gave "Sometimes I wish I were an eagle" second place on their "best of 2009" list Bill has been criminally obscure. Great album front to back. If you like Tom Waits, the National, Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan, Lambchop, Bonnie Prince Billy or just any quality music you may very well adore this album. Start with "Diamond Dancer" and take it from there.