Bill Callahan - "Bowery" (Rough Travel for a Rare Thing)
“Let’s get right down to business,“ mutters Bill Callahan, and he and his backup band gradually constructs “Our Anniversary,” starting with guitar and a barely brushed snare and blending in sweeping strings. Immediately, any long-term listener will understand why the man we knew as Smog started performing under his Christian name – very little remains of the self-flagellating lo-fi angstmonger who gave the world Wild Love, Burning Kingdom and The Doctor Came at Dawn and helped make the ‘90s even more depressing. The transformation that began with 1997’s Red Apple Falls is now complete. He retains a rigorous ear for detail, but he’s opened the windows, and his conversational baritone exudes a mature authority. The music is, if more conservative, unarguably richer and more thoughtful. If much of his back-catalog sounds like it came from a mental hospital, Rough Travel For a Rare Thing seems to emerge from a very productive, very well-organized home office.
For anyone who only got on board in time for the post-Smog stuff (officially starting with 2007’s Woke On a Whaleheart), this elegant live record brings back some of his earlier songs, performed through Callahan’s new perspective. An intriguing concept not fully actualized – four of the songs are from 2005’s first-rate A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, on which Callahan 2.0 had already fully emerged. “The Well” and “Rock Bottom Riser” build expansive arrangements over threadbare structures, allowing Bill and the band to sustain and develop their moods in ways the abbreviated studio versions couldn’t. The most interesting self-cover is “Bathysphere,” a ruthlessly bleak fan favorite from Wild Love rendered here as only vaguely ominous dad-rock.
Nothing terribly exciting here, but as it comes from a guy who made his bones as one of the most genuinely fucked-up-sounding people in music (an image his stint as Mr. Cat Power did nothing to diminish), it may be a welcome relief to hear him act like an adult.
Perhaps acknowledging it as a fans-only affair, Drag City released it as a double-vinyl exclusive (for, in the words of the typically cheeky promo copy, “in-the-know tastemakers and their gullible friends”). Right down to the packaging, it’s a classy show.