Bill Callahan

Pub date June 23, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

PREVIEW If Bill Callahan is a shepherd of the lo-fi reformation, his musical evolution suggests a shell-like spiral. His initial releases in the late-1980s to early-1990s were ramshackle home recordings, mostly instrumental. In the realm of the professionally recorded, his mid- to late-1990s creations utilized more instrumentation and experimented with lyrics, while allowing him to hone his vocal style; his post-2000 releases mildly reduce the instrumentation while maintaining the consistent, almost affect-less, baritone singing Callahan developed under the Smog moniker.

After Dongs of Sevotion (Darg City, 2000), Callahan changed his alias to direct attention toward the music itself, rather than the idea of "Smog." After 20 years, the dissipation of Callahan’s Smog marks another transformation. Disposing of the nom de plume, he’s become more direct, plain, and open. The woeful and despair inherent to Smog has lifted — the sky seems visible once again, albeit occasionally cloudy.

Bill Callahan as Bill Callahan has already revealed a mini-spiral, like a mirror reflection of the larger spiral of Smog: his initial releases in 2007 reveled in a rhythm-driven aesthetic that abandoned most of his lo-fi leanings. But this year’s Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle (Drag City) returns to the intimate, acoustic-based Smog sound. "Jim Cain," the opener on Eagle, starts like a Callahan thesis. Using poetic enjambment for effect, he declares, "I started out in search of /ordinary things … I started telling the story /without knowing the end /I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again." Brian Beattie’s subtle string arrangements compliment the sentiment in Callahan’s slight reversal from the lightness of Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City, 2007). But the sun peeps out when "Rococo Zephyr" finds Callahan momentarily "jaunty as a bee."

On Eagle, Callahan radically confesses an inherent inability to know everything. Not knowing the end of the story allows for ideas to evolve, and each Callahan album captures his sentiment at that moment. But a shepherd never strays too far from his flock, and even as Callahan’s overall travels take the form of a spiral, he returns to similar themes and sounds. "Well maybe this was all /Was all that meant to be /Maybe this is all /Is all that meant to be," he sings at one point on "Rococo Zephyr." Sounds like an epiphany, even if it takes him a few tries to get it out.

BILL CALLAHAN With Bachelorette. Tues/30, 8 p.m., $16. Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, SF. (415) 474-0365,