Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bill Callahan - Rough Travel for a Rare Thing

spectrumculture.com. spectrum culture, go check it out

No one listens to a Bill Callahan album expecting to be cheered up. The singer's best songs carry with them a sense of desolation and loneliness that is impossible to miss, even if these dark overtones are sometimes offset with dry humor, a resigned shrug or hints of stubborn determination. Throw in arrangements that could squeeze an emotional response out of anyone with a pulse, along with the singer's wobbly baritone, and you've got the makings for some of the most introspective and altogether moving songs in modern indie.

It's fitting, then, that the live Rough Travel for a Rare Thing showcases Callahan's unique ability to create primarily somber music without becoming melodramatic. Taken from a November 2007 performance in Melbourne, its songs are precisely arranged, with Callahan on guitar accompanied by a trio of fiddles, bass, harmonica and drums. This isn't to say that all 11 songs are wrist-slashing weepers - they aren't, as "Diamond Dancer," "Held," "The Well" and "Bathysphere" inject some volume and speed into this show - but it's the mostly solemn tracks that stay lodged in the brain long after the record has ended. With Callahan's world-weary voice and the backing band's frequent touches of strings and other instrumentation, there is an almost unbearable sadness to the live renditions of these songs, especially in the familial histories/tragedies of "Rock Bottom Riser" and "Bowery," the introspection of the mortality-tinged "Say Valley Maker" and the mournful distance of traditional song "In the Pines."

The show's lack of frills suits Callahan's style well; the songs are performed in an understated manner with a sincerity and conviction that emphasize each song's content and composition. There are also a few fever-pitch moments that probably left the Aussie crowd floored, most noticeably Callahan's howls on "The Well" and "Cold-Blooded Old Times" and the rising strings that punctuate "Let Me See the Colts" and "Bowery." It's an outstanding show to represent the artist's first officially released live album, with each song performed uniquely enough to distinguish it from its album counterpart; old standby "Cold-Blooded Old Times" in particular is a highlight, slowed down to a near crawl and featuring alternate lyrics and off-center phrasing, especially on the classic line "How can I stand/ And laugh with the man/ Who redefined your body?."

Rough Travel likewise hits all the main checklist points any legitimate live album should. It consists of a single show instead of a couple dozen tracks culled from various concerts, which is preferable to this reviewer at least. Its sound quality surpasses most of the Callahan shows that circulate unofficially; unlike many of the American shows that make the rounds, there is no idiotic audience chatter to fill those uncomfortable silences between songs or, you know, those distracting minutes where the band is actually playing. The record is also fairly representative of both the musician's Smog and solo careers up to 2007, with tracks from five different albums and one EP included.

Some fans will argue that one of Callahan's more recent 2009 shows - which mixed tracks from Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle with other songs from the singer's 20-plus year career - should have been considered for Rough Travel, and they'd have a point. Still, any quibbles are minor. For the most part Rough Travel is a live album done right and again confirms why Bill Callahan's work is consistently just so damn good: like the artist's best studio efforts, this live document offers the types of subtle melodies and poetic lyricism that few indie musicians can come close to matching.

Rough Travel may leave listeners feeling a little bit morose, but that's to be expected with Callahan's songs. Quite simply, this album is the next best thing to actually seeing Callahan live in concert.

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