The Great Pyramid

Bill Callahan can see clearly now

The Great Pyramid
Photo By Aubrey Edwards

"I find the landscape really openhearted, like any creature could step out from it and tell you something. As far as the music, I hate to see it go. Blues died with John Lee Hooker; soul died with James Brown. There are still vestiges of good country music in Texas. I hate to see them go. We need someone to take up the mantle. I'm willing to take the job if it's still available."

Bill Callahan has settled comfortably into his local surroundings since last we asked ("I'm New Here," July 1, 2005). In a state where so many before him were called to a higher power – Willie, Townes, Jandek – he's stepped out from the landscape to tell us something. Performances around Austin last year hinted there would be a follow-up to 2005's A River Ain't Too Much to Love, a tale of high baptismal flow and (re)birth that marked his move here. At those intimate shows – Cactus Cafe, Parish – he clutched his guitar high and close while eying the crowd, testing the waters of his new hometown crowd, many clearly obsessive Smog fans.

A few of those shows were played with paramour Joanna Newsom, and the addition of her harp to the mix seemed to have a rejuvenating effect on his playing and onstage confidence. His SXSW 07 performance at Central Presbyterian Church, accompanied by Newsom on piano and Elizabeth Warren on violin, was claimed by many as their highlight of this year's Festival. That the showcase happened in a church may or may not be symbolic, but let's say it is.

Woke on a Whaleheart, his 12th album since 1992 on Chicago indie Drag City, is about what happens after rebirth. Callahan took this event literally, dropping his Smog moniker after nearly two decades. Under that handle, he released EPs, LPs, and cassettes beginning in 1988, each one sounding markedly different while retaining Callahan's steely reserve and oft-impenetrable lyrics, which die-hard fans laid out like puzzle pieces to better understand him. Those broodings made him a figurehead for emotionally deprived young adults everywhere, whether he liked it or not. His output yielded multiple personalities: the stranger, the lover, the loner. Still, each recording was about moving on, bettering himself, casting off those personas. Witnessed on Whaleheart is an integration of all his facets. We're talking a whole new solar system here. The big bang.

Written over two months of 16-hour workdays and recorded locally last November at Bruce Robison's Premium Recording Service in a little more than a week, the songs flow seamlessly, no longer lonesome, spare recordings but an orchestral blend of country, blues, gospel, and a nice dose of Seventies soft rock. There's a center to each song, which unravels a tapestry of golden oldies.

Enter Neil Michael Hagerty. A veteran of D.C. noiseniks Pussy Galore and Stones-worshippers Royal Trux and current frontman of the more experimental Drag City quintet the Howling Hex, he and Callahan are longtime friends, and his part in Whaleheart is integral: Along with shedding his moniker, Callahan also shared creative control.

"I've known Neil since '92 when we did our first nationwide tour together," explains Callahan by e-mail. "And I did the Tramps, Traitors and Little Devils album with him a while back. He arranged that, and I liked the job he did. Our bands play shows together now and then, and he usually listens and has interesting things to say after my set. So, I asked him to produce. He said he's never seen an audience listen to and react to the story of the words as much as my audience, so his idea was to make musical arrangements that did not add too much narrative distraction. Which is not to say the arrangements are sparse. There's a lot going on in the music, but it all slots into itself neatly."

Hagerty's touch yields some of the album's best moments, and the Seventies vibe creeping into many of the songs is a welcome, if not coincidental, addition. "All the recording equipment we used was manufactured in the Seventies," Callahan explains. "Most of the people who played on the record were manufactured in the Seventies, too."

The gathering of the album's players proved serendipitous.

"I was over at the house of Thor Harris [of Shearwater] and mentioned that I had booked studio time for a new album," he writes. "He said he would play drums. I asked him if he knew a great bassist. He suggested Steve Bernal. Steve was asked if he knew any fiddle players. He suggested Elizabeth Warren, and so on."

Rounded out by guitarist Pete Denton, pianist Howard Draper, and the excellent Deani Pugh-Flemmings of the Olivet Baptist Church on backup vocals, the sound is older and wiser. As he remarks in one song, "Sycamore got to grow down to grow up," and Whaleheart points to growth – both in song and spirit. Starting with opener "From the Rivers to the Ocean" ("The city was a fist. I lived on its wrist. And I took myself a good long look around") through to the gospel country jaunt of "The Wheel" ("To make my home lord, in a stable spoke lord, inside a turning wheel bound for good") and the lazy "Sycamore" ("All you want to do is be the fire part of fire"), there's betterment here, as well as a reverence for old hands.

"There are certain nods to the history of American music on this LP – Chuck Berry, Les Paul, Bo Diddley," he reveals. "But they're all done more in tribute than in copping a style."

Right there on the press release for Whaleheart is a reference to Harry Nilsson, himself an orchestral genius whose idiosyncrasies and knack for subtle humor only added to his myth. On the peculiar and beautiful piano bomp "Day," an album highlight, Callahan channels Nilsson, stating, "Some people are a sickness on this land," before heading into the chorus:

"Learn from the animals.

Monkeys do.

Monkeys do piggish things too.

Learn from the vegetables.

Monkeys do.

The way they strive toward the light.

A small potato in the blight.

Still strives toward the light."

"I like the way Nilsson can straddle goofy and heartfelt at the same time," Callahan muses. "Just about everything by Nilsson is great, except I don't think I'm ready for A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night just yet. The best way to have an influence is a passive one, so I can say to myself, 'This is the Nilsson song!' without having listened to Nilsson in years. It's more of a shorthand or a name for a folder you put your ideas in and has very little to do with his actual work. As a song comes more and more to light, you own it more and more until it's finally yours to give. So it's more like, 'The Nilsson in me produced this.'" The lyrics to "Day" wade into a more political current, like River's "I Feel Like the Mother of the World," and in true Callahan style: biting.

"It's about day, as in facing facts in the light of day," he explains. "It's about the crumbling environment. It's about Gorge Bush and his cronies. It's about making babies. It's about the struggle we all have for our bodies and minds to be harmonious with our surroundings, with nature. When we are not healthily striving for this, we cast it out of ourselves and make war so struggle can be incarnate and maneuvered like chess pieces. I would prefer it if Gorge Bush just went back to war on himself with cocaine and booze and a musicless life and left us alone."

On the other side of the spectrum, there's "Diamond Dancer," which borders on soft rock, with Pugh-Flemmings' soulful moans floating over a monster bassline as Callahan relates the story of a woman in a bar who's "dancing so hard, she danced herself into a diamond." Elsewhere, the ubiquitous and symbolic river gropes at an emerged couple with needy hands, while on "Night," he muses that, "We stand under it, but we don't understand it." Finally, on Willie-fied closer, "A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man," "fireworks light the way." Thanks to Newsom or not, Whaleheart is a force of nature.

"The Egyptians built pyramids to resemble the hillocks of mud that were formed after a flood wiped out the land," he offers. "If A River was the flood, Whaleheart is the pyramid that got built."

So, here we are on top of the pyramid, a metaphor for celestial death and rebirth if ever there were one. Where to now?

"Jesus, I just built a pyramid, and you're asking me what's next?" he jests. "Now I have to try to unload the pyramid on someone."

Without the Smog, (Smog), smog – take your pick – Callahan has made an evolutionary artistic leap, and quite phoenixlike. Now that he's arrived, he's no less mysterious, but he makes a damn good case for self-fulfilling prophecy.

"In 1986 I declared I would make a 7-inch EP under the name of Smog and it would be called A Raindrop in Every City," he reflects. "I didn't have any songs, just the title. I never wrote the songs for it. That's a real long time to hold on to a name. And I started to think about how insane it is to hold on to a band name for so long. It's like having plastic covers for your lamp shades.

"But what better name to cast off than Smog," he concludes, "as if I'd planned it all along. I brought my own epiphany, to cast it off." end story

Bill Callahan celebrates the release of Whaleheart at Mohawk Saturday, April 21, with openers Horse + Donkey.

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Bill Callahan, Smog, Woke on a Whaleheart, Drag City, Neil Michael Hagerty, Joanna Newsom, Elizabeth Warren, Shearwater

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