BEST OF 2013: 5. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years ago, I found myself raving over Bill Callahan‘s last album, ‘Apocalypse’, and wondering quite why I’d never fallen so in love with his work before then. The subsequent months allowed for that to happen more fully and by the time ‘Dream River’ was first being filtered out to journalists, I was poised and ready to go. As a result, I spent almost a month solidly listening to this record. 2013 really has been the year of whole-month album-absorptions, with records locking on and refusing to let go. It’s not difficult to see why it may have happened with this particular album, continuing as it does Callahan’s recent run of masterful sets released under his own name. It is, arguably, his most affecting vocal performance of his career – he really seems to have considered the potential and power of his singing voice. Known for his dour delivery dating back to the early days of Smog, he has become increasingly at ease with pushing and stretching his voice to see where it will go. It is, as one might expect, really rather beautiful.

‘Small Plane’ may just edge it as this album’s finest track, although the vivid and sepia-tinted imagery of ‘Summer Painter’ runs it close. The former is a song which dawdles along, serene in its contentment and underlined by some gentle tape hiss. The lyrics contained within seem to offer metaphorical takes on the unit formed by a relationship and the sense that he is at ease sharing his life now. For example: “sometimes you sleep while I take us home, that’s when I know we really have a home. I never liked to land, getting back up seems impossibly grand. We do it with ease.” And that’s ignoring the repeated phrase, “I really am a lucky man.” He appears to be happy to sing this, but less comfortable discussing it when reflecting on his music. His prior reputation for being a challenging interviewee is hardly a secret and when I found myself in a position where I was due to conduct a chat with him for Clash, it dramatically affected how I listened to ‘Dream River’. For a week or so, I was forensic and determined, looking to draw out thoughts and angles that might prompt a purposeful response. As it happened, the interview ended up being conducted via email and largely free of incident. Two questions were ignored – one of which asked if this album might be considered his ‘contentment record’. The other touched on the almost playful delivery of certain aspects of his lyrics, such as “barroom barroom” in ‘Seagull’ or the delicious repetition of “beer and thank you” after the line “the only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you” on ‘The Sing’. It’s those moments I tend to gravitate towards myself, being something of a melody fan. Those very knowing aspects are fascinating and mysterious to me – and so they, evidently, will remain.

The rest of the interview offered some insight here and there, although the process of preparing for it left the album slightly over-exposed and the incessant listening came to an end. It has since been suitably rehabilitated, as its position here demonstrates. Having barely updated the blog in recent months, you’ll forgive me for using this an opportunity to reuse that feature. The album is a delight, my questioning adequate and Callahan’s responses, I hope, of interest to you.

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The title ʻDream Riverʼ seems a pretty distinct contrast from ʻApocalypseʼ and the songs therein seem to capture a certain ease with the world. Where did the title come from and how much importance do you attach to your album titles in general?

A lot of importance. It has to be the perfect thing. With ‘Dream River’ I realised those words, while very common in titles, haven’t really been put together in the past – but it feels like they have. It seems familiar, but it’s not; like a dream.

There seems to be a lot of movement on the record – a plane, seagull and javelin. Does this set of songs come from a change in your feelings about the world since ʻApocalypseʼ, where you seemed to be scrutinising modern America?

I wouldn’t say I was scrutinising modern America. I was more just describing it. To me it seems like a natural progression: after apocalypse the dream river. An attitude towards the world is all within. Not much has really changed in the last 800 years.

I spoke to an artist recently who said that, after twenty solid years, song writing no longer came easily. Is that the case for you, or has it got easier over time? Are you someone who needs to write?

It’s pretty easy. You’ve got to be more selective over time, though. No need to repeat yourself, so that takes a bit more time. The basketball court gets longer, but the basket stays the same height. I probably do need to write but I don’t ever stop, so I don’t feel a need.

Is ʻDream River’ your fifteenth album in your eyes, or do you consider the eleven Smog albums as a different part of your career? Presumably you feel vindicated about the decision to record under your own name?

I feel like Smog was a different time; I was different people. And who can feel tethered to a line that long and old? It’s more natural to me to think in the form of trilogies. That’s about as far back as I can go in my catalogue and still have an inkling of who I was then and what I was doing. Anything further back than that becomes awkward teenage photos.

What have you been listening to recently? Does the current music scene excite you?

Loving the new Urban Cone. I don’t really like the way R&B is going. It’s very Euro Disco these days. Hip Hop is almost always interesting. I like Future and Lil Boosie. Nothing is really music anymore these days, though. It’s just computer washes of sound. Which is fine for Hip Hop, but not other stuff.

For someone not especially fond of talking about his work, I find it interesting that there were both a tour film and book of photographs of late. Are you happy to give part of yourself to your audience, you’d just rather not have to explain it afterwards?

If people want it, truly want it, then I am happy to give it to them. If people are just pretending to want it to be polite, then I don’t want to give it to them, and it’s a matter of only wanting to give something to people that is worthwhile. There’s no sense in giving something/anything just for the sake of it, in my book. It has to be the right time and place.

After the warm response to ‘Letters to Emma Bowlcut’, are there any plans for another novel?

I am working on it. I think Emma just went into its fourth printing which is pretty cool. It was translated into Spanish and German. Pretty wild. Maybe the publishers are just being polite in doing that, I don’t know.

What are you currently reading? Is it any good?

I don’t read anymore. TV is too good.

BEST OF 2011: 2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Having recommended many albums for their beautiful layers of sound, intricate percussion and meticulous production, it might seem a little odd that an album which is so low-key, so unpolished and so simple is this high up the list. It might also seem a little odd that that is a description of ‘Apocalypse’ after the warm, luscious wash of sound that was Callahan’s last outing, ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’. Something of a critical darling, and rightly so after years of producing fantastic music as both Smog and under his own name, it’s telling that when Radiohead release an eight track album people turn round and ask where the rest of it is, but when Callahan unleashes only seven tracks on the world, we simply appreciate the chance to hear them.

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With a controlled part-sung, part-spoken baritone, Callahan rarely disappoints, and even then you sort of suspect it might be you rather than him. Just as certain people radiate charisma in person, so Callahan’s voice is something of a magnet. Once he’s got you, there is a wealth of music to explore. Having enjoyed bits of his output in the past, it was only with ‘Apocalypse’ that it all truly clicked into place. It’s a very unassuming album, which may go some way to explaining why it appears to have been overlooked in some quarters come the end of the year.

Essentially recorded live, with a small but perfectly formed band, ‘Apocalypse’ is built using a relatively limited group of sounds and in some senses feels a little like a live performance is happening, albeit discreetly, in the corner of the room. Callahan’s vocals have always been pretty distinctive within the mix but, with songs gently strummed and adorned with sparse percussion, here he constantly hovers in the room. This is a headphones record and a speakers and comfy chair record. It’s a happy album and a sad album. It has a comforting warmth and a captivating confidence. Just as ‘One Sunday Morning’ takes as long as it needs at the ends of Wilco’s ‘The Whole Love’, so too the songs on ‘Apocalypse’, only one of which is under five minutes.

Riding For The Feeling’, perhaps the album’s most beautiful song, shimmers with an aching sense of regret. However, that dismay seems to stem from not feeling able to express himself when talking about his music. “I asked the room if I’d said enough. No one really answered,” he sings and are the faces “it’s never easy to say goodbye to” perhaps the songs on an album which are no longer his once they’re out in the world? It’s clear from Callahan’s interviews that he struggles to reflect on his music, often claiming to have forgotten the inspiration behind a song. Whatever the motivation, the result is staggering.

At the other end of the scale is the raw, lop-sided throb of ‘America!’ which has even been described by less self-conscious reviewers than I as “funky.” It’s an amusing tale of feeling distant, if not necessarily homesick, and how watching US talk show host Letterman on tour in Australia causes him to begin reflecting on America and, in particular, the military status achieved by various singers from his homeland. His already curious delivery is highlighted most obviously here. It’s great fun, and it makes you wonder if that is indeed all its meant to be, rather than a specific reflection on those named or the country of his birth.

Add in the verbalised puff of a fired gun several minutes into ‘Universal Applicant’, which triggers a brief, consuming pause before the song unfurls and the charming narrative of opener ‘Drover’ and this is already a pretty spectacular record. As the album comes to a close, Callahan sings its catalogue number, DC450, twice over the last, trickling notes of ‘One Fine Morning’, and the first time it made me laugh. It seemed like a quirky affectation but it serves to clearly mark the end of a collection of songs. It refers to how this particular source of entertainment is branded and it does make you wonder how much of what came before is autobiographical or metaphorical and how much he actually wants us to think about that. It’s already an album which is crying out to have one of the ‘33 1/3’ books written about it and for now I’m just going to continue enjoying its wondrous songs. ‘Apocalypse’ is quite possibly the best of his solo years and right up there with his finest moments as Smog. There have been more bombastic albums this year, more controversial, more innovative and more imposing, but few have been so purely and consistently engaging.

20 from ‘11 so far – Part 2

I like lists. Even a brief browse of the site should make that pretty clear. Following on from numbers 20-11, which you can find here, read on for the second half of Just Played’s Top 20 albums from the first half of 2011.Where I’ve already reviewed the album in question there is a link through to it, and all albums have a listen link to Spotify and a buy link through to the marvellous Rise site, who’ll sort you out with the tunes pretty sharpish. Feel free to agree, mutter abuse or supply your own lists below. Right then…

10. Metronomy – ‘The English Riviera’ (BECAUSE MUSIC)

METRONOMYEssentially a very well constructed pop record, ‘The English Riviera’ is a suave and polished beast, blessed with hooks to die for and seductively nimble bass lines. Recent single ‘The Loop’ is an insidious electro-burst, lodging itself in your head for days on end, while ‘Everything Goes My Way’, with the gorgeous vocals of Roxanne Clifford, is a lazy summer smash in waiting. It’s only relatively recently that this has moved from being a pleasant little record I play when the sun shines to a favourite from the year so far. When you really listen to it, which is to say put down books, iWotsits and magazines and just concentrate, the really rather beautiful production hits you. Pick apart the bits of ‘She Wants’ on a decent pair of headphones and I suspect you’ll be suitably impressed. Oh, and the only thing this has in common with the band’s earlier incarnation is the band name on the sleeve. Be not afraid.

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9. The Low Anthem‘Smart Flesh’ (BELLA UNION)

Low Anthem SmartEveryone having caught up thanks to Bella Union picking up the initially self-released ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ in 2009, there was a great deal of interest in this record and it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed. As almost every review mentioned, this was committed to tape in a disused pasta sauce factory but that fact is actually significant as some of the recordings on here are utterly breath-taking. The size of this alternative studio is discernible on a number of occasions, particularly on some of Ben Knox Miller’s haunting vocals which were recorded in umpteen different ways. Still veering between fragile, meditative reflections on the human condition and all out Dylan-cum-Waits rackets, this is the band’s defining moment thus far.

“The sound of ‘Smart Flesh’ is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Listen carefully to ‘Golden Cattle’ and it’s quite clear that lead vocalist Ben Knox Miller’s affecting performance is being picked up from afar; emptiness never sounded so good. ‘Love And Altar’ has a similarly airy feel, the attention to detail in creating this distinctive, raw sound utterly staggering. Miller sounds as if his vocal is being left somewhere in the past, the other voices in the band harmonising beautifully around him. It’s impressive through speakers but a listen via headphones left me more than a little choked up.”

Read the full review

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8. Tom Williams & The Boat – ‘Too Slow’ (WIREBOAT RECORDINGS)

Tom Williams Too SlowFollowing on from a number of excellent EPs, this is a heart-warmingly splendid debut outing from one of Just Played’s favourite bands. A genuine music fan and somebody who has spent some years truly crafting his sound and maturing as an artist, the Tom Williams who fronts this tremendous band has a distinctive and charismatic yelp which drives these largely wonderful songs. While their folky origins still show through from time to time, things took a slightly darker and spikier turn on the debut, with lead single ‘Concentrate’ sounding heavier than it ever had before. Lyrically there’s plenty to get your teeth into, the lines “they don’t know my dad, he’s this town through and through. Old school, fifty-something balding racist, and so his mates are too,” are so splendidly evocative they’ve proved to be a popular search term for people finding my original review of the record. Ultimately, fans of narrative-driven indie will find much to love here but even if that’s not your bag, I’d urge you to have a listen to this really very impressive debut.

“‘See My Evil’, having previously been the lead track on an EP of the same name, makes an appearance near to the end of the record. It sounds just as shudderingly splendid as it did that first time: like a grubby Arcade Fire after a night in a dark room with a fine malt, headphones and a copy of Jeff Buckley’s ‘(Sketches For) My Sweetheart The Drunk’.”

Read the full review

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7. Alessi’s Ark‘Time Travel’ (BELLA UNION)

alessiA bewitching stage presence and an angelic vocal make Alessi’s Ark very easy to love and this album is yet another triumph for the good folks at Bella Union. Finely crafted folk is elevated towards greatness by the stunning voice of Alessi Laurent-Marke, which is utterly beautiful throughout. Openers ‘Kind Of Man’ and ‘Wire’ should be enough to have you sold but, failing that, skip to one particular song. ‘Maybe I Know’, an impressive retooling of the Lesley Gore pop stomper, tells the tale of a cheated upon partner realising that the gossip is all about her and will break your heart. With the aforementioned vocal talents of Alessi, it will have you on the verge of tears. It’s the standout moment on an album which rarely dips below excellent and the old school songwriting and airy, summery production will leave you utterly spellbound.

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6. Fleet Foxes – ‘Helplessness Blues’ (BELLA UNION)

Fleet FoxesAfter the somewhat unexpected love-fest which greeted their debut album, things seemed a little less gushing this time around, which is unfortunate as ‘Helplessness Blues’ is actually the superior release. Opener ‘Montezuma’ picks up from where we left off, all cascading harmonies and gently plucked folksy guitar, but don’t be foolish enough to subscribe to the hipster notion that this is an album of wet, hippy-dippy, breakfast-knitting nonsense – because it really isn’t. ‘Battery Kinzie’ is a gloriously plinky-plonky little number which sounds like something straight out of the late-Sixties/early-Seventies Elektra stable, while ‘Lorelai’ shuffles along beneath a wash of harmony, the musical equivalent of that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you witness a particularly beautiful sunset. A logical follow-up to their self-titled debut then, and a fine, fine collection of songs.

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5. Elbow – ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ (FICTION)

Elbow BuildHow do you follow up a record as utterly beguiling as ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’? Well, it would seem it can be done, on this evidence. Take the completely unnecessary ‘The Birds (Reprise)’ out of the equation and you’re left with ten delicately crafted tracks which, as I pointed out in my Clash review back in March, take in the best bits of their career to date. The pressure was off and the band could do pretty much whatever they wanted to…and they did. With Guy Garvey’s national treasure status pretty much assured and another stunning Glastonbury performance chalked up, it seems strange to say that I was faintly underwhelmed by ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ at first. It’s a more subtle record than its predecessor, built around gently uplifting mantras and airy piano refrains. Recent singles ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Neat Little Rows’ both demonstrate the continued knack for meticulously measured epics but be sure to seek out ‘Lippy Kids’ and ‘The Night Will Always Win’, the latter balancing on a simple little piano line as Garvey croons “I miss your stupid face, I miss your bad advice.” Craig Potter’s sympathetic and spacious production remains a delight and however much other albums may be more exciting or more ground-breaking, I find myself returning again and again to this more than most.

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4. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis – ‘Smoking In Heaven’ (SUNDAY BEST)

KDLAfter a solid and well-received debut, these analogue purists with a knack for good old-fashioned rock and roll deliver a follow up which oozes class and continues to floor me on each successive spin. Sounding fifty years out of time and traversing genres without concern, it is unlike anything else you will hear this summer. And you really must hear it. Boldly commencing with the ska-infused ‘Tomorrow’, the album ranges from straight up rock and roll through raucous R’n’B and folksy swing. A band at ease with their sound, the utter joy at the heart of these songs is conveyed explicitly throughout, most notably on ‘Messing With My Life’ and ‘Don’t Make A Fool Out Of Me’. Forget the fact that Jools Holland probably loves this and console yourself with the fact that Mark Lamarr is also probably quite keen too. Although I’d generally advocate vinyl as the way to go for every single title in this list, ‘Smoking In Heaven’ is available as a superlative double wax pressing and it is truly the only way to properly hear this brilliant album.

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3. Gruff Rhys‘Hotel Shampoo’ (TURNSTILE)

Gruff Rhys HSThe top three are very hard to separate at the moment as they’re all pretty special. After the homespun charms of ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’ and ‘Candylion’, Gruff Rhys has pulled out all the stops for his third solo outing. While those earlier albums were charming and intermittently ace, ‘Hotel Shampoo’ is as good as some of the Super Furries’ finest. Recent single ‘Honey All Over’ evokes his home band in their ‘Phantom Power’ pomp, while ‘Christopher Columbus’ forces a distorted ska sound through the electronic burbles of ‘Guerrilla’. The album hangs together well and although the singles form the opening salvo, things don’t flag towards the end. ‘Conservation Conversation’ squawks and honks away as only a song built around a repetitive phrase playing on the similarity of two words can, while ‘Softly Sophie’ deliberately wrong-foots you off the back of the playfully falsetto chorus. Only Gruff could pull off the potentially nauseating title “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)” and the track itself is a delight. In short, this isn’t just his best solo album, but also one of the best albums out there featuring Gruff full stop.

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2. Bill Callahan – ‘Apocalypse’ (DRAG CITY)

Bill Callahan ApocalypseCold Blooded Old Times’ was my first exposure to the majesty of Bill Callahan via the ‘High Fidelity’ soundtrack, back when he was still plying his trade as Smog. After an experiment with brackets, he finally opted to operate under his own name with 2007’s ‘Woke On A Whaleheart’. I returned to the fray with the luscious ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ in 2009 and quickly sought out the majority of his back catalogue. While ‘A River Ain’t Too Much Love’ may well be my preferred Smog outing, the slightly less polished sounds of ‘Knock Knock’ and ‘Red Apple Falls’ also appealed and ‘Apocalypse’ is perhaps the closest of all of his ‘solo’ outings to the sound of his previous project. Opener ‘Drover’ sets the tone: low-key band performance, largely deadpan half-spoken, half-sung vocals, occasional bursts of feedback and anxious fiddle. It’s a spectacular way to start a record and all seven of the songs in this set are distinctive and memorable in their own way. Most immediately worthy of attention is the raw, lop-sided throb of ‘America!’ which has even been described by less self-conscious reviewers than I as “funky.” ‘One Fine Morning’ is a strung out, near-nine-minute finale which concludes with Callahan singing the album’s catalogue album in lulling tones. Which is, clearly, unutterably cool. But for the sheer magnificence of the album which tops this list, this would be an easy contender for album of the year and you certainly won’t regret the investment.

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1. Low ‘C’mon’ (SUB POP)

Low CmonI absolutely adore this album; I’m still playing it weekly and I can’t imagine ever tiring of it. The first time I played it, I fell in love and little has changed in the months since. Even if you think you know what Low do and find it hard to imagine ever rhapsodising so verbosely about any of their output, you really should put aside forty-five minutes to spend in the company of ‘C’Mon’. I’ve always quite liked them: their ‘Christmas’ EP regularly gets a dusting down come December and ‘Drums And Guns’ went down well enough but I had little else from their back catalogue and I wasn’t waiting with baited breath for this album’s arrival. Despite all of this, ‘C’Mon’ is my most played album of the year to date, by far. Alan Sparhawk’s keening vocal on opener and first single ‘Try To Sleep’ was all it took. The chiming and immersive backdrop feels soothing and luxurious and it is as welcome a tonic at the end of a long day as cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. The almost somnambulant pace of old is still present in part, but the delicate jangle, used so well on the aforementioned festive offering, is foregrounded here more so then ever before, and it is a triumph. Having tried loud (‘The Great Destroyer’) and electronic (‘Drums And Guns’), it’s been suggested that this is the band returning to what they do best and, frankly, I have no problem with that when it results in ten songs as imperious as these. ‘Especially Me’ and ‘Something’s Turning Over’ are further examples of  vocals balanced meticulously atop shimmering instrumentation, the former allowing Mimi Parker creep out from the, nevertheless beautiful, dueting role she takes on ‘You See Everything’ and ‘Done’. Several months ago, I told one purchaser of the album that if they didn’t like it, I’d give them their money back myself. They’ve not asked for any cash as yet and I don’t imagine you would either.

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