Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
“The master of reiki, he waved his hands over me, And said I eat too much steak, And hold on too long to ancient takes, And both are so hard on my heart”. Bill Callahan’s first album in five years is full of dry humour and no little wisdom. Things have changed since the last time we heard from him. “I got married”, he tells us. “To my wife”. Phew. He’s also had a son. “Giving birth nearly killed me”, he confides, probably only half jokingly. It’s a quieter album than the last few. And more free form. This is not the place to come and meet up with chorus and verse. And middle eight is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a number of the songs seem fragmentary, almost extemporaneous. Yet never slight. For an indie legend with mild country leanings, there’s a hint of jazz in the air this time around. But the lyrics remain as beguiling as ever. There are some lovely similes. “Like two wrestlers, I am mostly still”. Some poignant words about death. “I made a circle, I guess, When I folded her hands across her chest”. And more than a few thoughts about matters of the heart. “True love is not magic, It’s certainty, And what comes after certainty? A world of mystery”. I wonder what the Reiki master would say?
This is a time of looking forward. To the familiar artists that will return. To the new artists that will be discovered. This year, like any other, comes with a wish list. Some albums will never materialise. Others will slightly disappoint. A few will remain life-long friends. Fingers crossed for the latter. In no particular order, apart from alphabetical, my 2018 wish list includes new releases by Alela Diane, Anäis Mitchell, Bill Callahan, Caitlin Harnett, Cat Power, East River Pipe, Field Report, First Aid Kit, Jacob Golden, Jenny Lewis, Jessica Pratt, Jim White, Jonathan Wilson, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Pearl Charles, Phosphorescent, Pinegrove, Richard Edwards, The Delines, Vetiver, Wooden Shjips, Wye Oak and the artist formerly known as Young Man.
And yet, there is a special place in the 2018 wish list for a new album by Kramies (pronunciation to be determined). With rumours going back at least a couple of decades, there are unconfirmed reports that an album is finally on its way and that Ireland had some part to play in it. We wait with fingers crossed, though we have learned not to hold our breath. The hard way. In the meantime, here’s a wonderful feature by Shon Cobbs and his Behind The Scenes colleagues from Denver. It features Kramies answering questions and sometimes asking them too. Plus a lot of laughing.
Happy New Year. Surely, 2017 can only be better than 2016. But who knows at the moment? What’s for sure is that music will always be a comfort. In that spirit, highly anticipated 2017 releases include confirmed albums from Elbow, Fleet Foxes, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Grizzly Bear, Horse Thief, Nadia Reid, Nikki Lane, Real Estate, Ryan Adams, The Shins, Son Volt, Strand of Oaks, and Sun Kil Moon. And then there’s always the H-LM wish list. This year, it includes Adrian Crowley, Alela Diane, Anaïs Mitchell, Bill Callahan, David Vandervelde, Feist, Field Report, Fionn Regan, First Aid Kit, Israel Nash, Jason Isbell, Jim White, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Noah Gunderson, and Phosphorescent. Mind you, some of these artists were on my wish list this time last year. So, fingers are tightly crossed. Whatever happens, let’s start the new year with some good news. Word is in that Kramies is recording new demos. I can’t wait to hear the end result. In the meantime, here’s Kramies (feat. Jason Lytle) with ‘Clocks Were All Broken’.
Day of the Dead
This is the second all-star indie charity album produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. Both have benefited the Red Hot Organisation, which is an HIV/AIDS not-for-profit. The first, Dark Was The Night, appeared in 2009 and featured some great tracks, including ‘Brackett, WI’ by Bon Iver and a lovely version of ‘Lua’ by Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch. This time the format is different. Clocking in at approximately three-and-a-half weeks long (only a slight exaggeration), Day of the Dead is a 59-track collection of Grateful Dead covers. The performers comprise a who’s who of contemporary indie royalty. There’s Courtney Barnett, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kurt Vile, Local Natives, and many, many more. With such a stellar cast of characters, it’s difficult to know how to parse the contributions, not least because the running order varies as a function of whether you’re listening to it as a download or CD. There’s some slightly wearying experimental work on the second half of CD 4, but there are also some real revelations, ‘Black Muddy River’ by Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison being one, and, hard though it is to believe, ‘Friend of the Devil’ by Mumford and Sons. What’s really nice, though, is that the vast majority of the tracks sound just like you’d want them to. Whether it’s The War on Drugs, Phosphorescent, Bill Callahan, or The National themselves, they inhabit their respective covers really well. Some people will bemoan a certain lack of noodling, choogling, and general guitar boogying. And others will be dismissive of the fact that there isn’t more experimental excess, though there’s always The Flaming Lips. But by generally paring back the potential for unbridled extravagance, the Dessner brothers and Josh Kaufman have produced a much more cohesive album than might be expected. So, support Day of the Dead. It not only helps a worthy cause, it’s also, whisper it, a really good listen.
This is always a really exciting time. A whole year of new releases to be anticipated. We know there’s material forthcoming from Villagers, Eleanor Friedberger, Andrew Bird, Dylan Leblanc, Shearwater, Tindersticks, Lucinda Williams, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. There are also rumours of albums from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Robert Ellis, and PJ Harvey. That’s a good start. But there’s much more to hope for. Last year, I was really lucky. Right at the top of my 2015 list was music from Elvis Perkins and Sufjan Stevens and both were kind enough to oblige. So, artists, if you are listening, here’s my wish list for 2016 – Bill Callahan, Phosphorescent, Richmond Fontaine, Anais Mitchell, John Vanderslice, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear and/or Department of Eagles, David Vandervelde, Neko Case, Emmy The Great, Ryan Adams, Feist, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Kramies. Do please oblige. In the meantime, here is the great one with his classic ‘Sea Otter Cottage’.
Here’s the final instalment of my favourite albums of 2013.
Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle – Perils from the Sea
This album was full of characters. Gustavo, the illegal immigrant. J H Park, the flight attendant. His dad. His sister. There was death. Break ups. Touring. The usual. But through it all, magnificently, “the wonder of life prevailed”.
Bill Callahan – Dream River
This was Bill Callahan’s happy album. At times he seemed almost contented. It’s all relative, of course. “You looked like world-wide Armageddon while you slept” is his form of a compliment. And sitting on a barstool uttering only the words “Beer … Thank you … Beer … Thank you” is about as close as you’re likely to come to a conversation. Few could get away with it, but Bill Callahan certainly can.
Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze
Song after song with the same tone. The same mood. The same sound. Chilled out. Laid back. Confident. Kurt Vile pulled off a great trick of turning in a really disciplined and coherent album that still totally relaxed and spontaneous. It was an album that you wanted to go on for hours and hours. And with the arrival of the deluxe edition, it did.
Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Much was made of Matthew Houck’s new-found love of electronica. But he blended it beautifully with Phosphorescent’s signature-style, slightly off-kilter americana. There were the usual yips. Raggedy guitars. Head-scratching song titles. But most of all there were great melodies and an extra dimension to the sound.
Arctic Monkeys – AM
There were no frills, no flourishes to this version of the Arctic Monkeys. The sound was slinky, sexy, groovy. The themes were late night. Lonely. But then up popped Arabella with her “interstellar-gator skin boots” and “Barbarella silver swimsuit”. Oh, being a rock superstar is such hell.
Bill Callahan – Dream River
If Bill Callahan were on Facebook, his status would most likely say ‘In A Relationship’. His last album, Apocalypse, was born on the road with songs about being alone in hotel rooms. Here, too, he’s on a journey, but it’s more a journey of the mind. And this time you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’s found some companionship and that he’s happy that way. “I like it when I take the controls from you, And when you take the controls from me”, he sings on ‘Small Plane’, “I really am a lucky man”. And on the closer, ‘Winter Road’, again he’s travelling. “World spinning heavy and slow, And I’m headed home, Time itself means nothing, But time spent with you”. Yet life as Bill Callahan’s partner, as previous ones might attest, probably isn’t always straightforward. “You looked like worldwide armageddon while you slept …”, he sings on ‘Javelin Unlanding’. Not always what a girl expects to hear. But the thought is soon clarified. “… You looked so peaceful, you scare me”, he says, and all is well again. But we should be wary of taking Bill Callahan too literally. He’s a consummate storyteller. When he tells us he’s sitting in a bar and that “the only words I said today are ‘Beer’ and ‘Thank you'”, we can well believe him. But the chances are that it’s a tale as tall as ‘Summer Painter’, which he presents as the story of a summer job he had painting boats. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether he’s really journeying or just imagining. The words on a Bill Callahan album are always worth listening to. “The eagle flies using the river as a map, A small animal in its clasp, Alive and enjoying the ride”. And what a great ride.
Consequence of Sound review
Paste Magazine review
The AV Club review
New York Times review
The Line of Best Fit review
American Songwriter review