Hiya, this week’s submission is by @Icarus-Smicarus, on Bill Callahan.
Bill Callahan started out making home recorded tape experiments some 30 years ago under the name Smog, but nowadays embodies something of the ‘great American songwriter’ type under his birth name, like a sort cult Leonard Cohen type figure. Most of the real gold though lies somewhere in between, in the midst of this journey.
His early 90s material tends to be more lo-fi and shambling - the first couple of records sound a lot more throwaway from what I’ve heard but albums like Julius Caesar and Wild Love contain some great songwriting in among the experiments. In the late 90s his sound becomes more focused with the help of Jim O’Rourke, but his lyrics continue to function as wonderful short stories, often full of humour and delivered in a detached, unceremonious style.
Into the 00s and 10s is where he becomes, for want of a better term, a more ‘serious’ artist, moving to Texas and dropping the Smog moniker in the mid 00s, his voice sinking ever further into a deep baritone and a greater array of instruments like strings and woodwind finding their way into his work. His lyrics remain as wonderfully literate and full of humour as ever though. His most recent records can honestly feel a bit dull when you’re not in the mood for them, though can still be fairly rewarding when you are.
I would say he’s very much in the mould of Drag City labelmates Will Oldham or Silver Jews, all 3 began around the same time and followed a fairly similar trajectory.
This playlist is non-chronological, although the bulk of it is taken up with material from the mid to late 90s, with a few later tracks appearing towards the end. The material spans from 1994 single ‘A Hit’ - with lyrics that read like a mission statement for the whole lo-fi ethos - up until 2011’s Western mini-epic ‘Drover’, though with some 16 albums to his name there’s naturally a lot of omissions. I think it’s a decent introductory overview though.
1999’s Knock Knock captures Bill at his best, moving further into a more professional sound but without yet straying too far from his roots. Upbeat tracks sit alongside quieter, gloomier ones full of rich storytelling, and even a children’s choir occasionally shows up to provide a deliberately ironic contrast.
For his work under his real name meanwhile, 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is a clear winner, one of the most consistent and gorgeous albums in his whole catalogue, and his last truly great album (so far).
‘I Break Horses’ originally appears as a decent enough acoustic track on a mid 90s EP, but is given a new lease of life with a band in a 1997 Peel Session - this definitive version appears on the Accumulation: None compilation and is absolutely wonderful.
10 track playlist: