I admit it: I haven’t listened to much Bill Callahan, who has spent the bulk of his career recording under the Smog moniker. But I’ve listened to 2003’s Supper about a quarter of a million times, and why, given how much I enjoy it, I haven’t listened to any of his other albums is an imponderable mystery, like what happened to D.B. Cooper, why the dinosaurs and the 8-track went extinct, and what exactly it is about the Police that other people hear but I don’t.
Callahan followed the patented path from lo-fi to high, although in his case the increasing sophistication was due less to shifting aesthetic preference to sheer lack of access to more expensive recording technology in his early years. He has however, stayed faithful to his relativity primitive songwriting approach, which emphasizes simple and repetitive song structures, and often eschews choruses. That, compared with his deadpan vocal delivery, gives his LPs a unique feel, one that is often simultaneously down in the mouth and exhilarating. Or, depending on your tastes, it makes them exercises in monotony, which are likely to send you running to something with more variety, say Prince or just about everybody, really.
“Feather by Feather” is a lovely and haunting slow burner of a country rock tune on which Callahan is joined by Sarabeth Tucek. The organ is pretty, as is the pedal steel guitar, and while I can’t say I know what the song is about, I sure do like it when Callahan sings, “When they make the movie of your life/They’re going to have to ask you to do your own stunts/Cuz nobody nobody nobody nobody/Can pull off the same shit as you/And still come out alright.” I also like the ending, when Callahan and Tucek sing, “And you are a fighter/You are a fighter/You are a fighter” and so on until a synth comes in and they repeat, “The kids got heart.” I’m not enthralled by “Butterflies Drowned in Wine,” which opens with some stop and start until it breaks into an enthused passage, which in its turn is followed by some slow country music. And so it goes, the tune twisting and turning about on itself and going every which way—there’s even a section where Callahan and Tucek sing, “Temporary sister and brotherhood” over and over again—and it’s just too busy for my tastes.