BETTER WITH AGE: Bill Callahan, aka Smog, is following up 2009’s “Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle” with a live recording of 11 older songs called “Rough Travel For a Rare Thing”. Callahan has always had a way with words, and this sparse album is a reminder of just what a good songwriter he is. But it’s also not going to be one of those live albums that becomes a classic, or one that shed’s light on something fans didn’t already know about him. For the unfamiliar, Callahan has never been a great singer, but he continues to find emotionally evocative ways to deliver. He generally speaks his lyrics gruffly, but his voice has lately matured into a welcoming wood-rich baritone. Combined with his gift for observation, it’s the pathos of his words that works the magic. “Let me See the Colts” offers some tender western Americana, and lyrics with internal rhyme and a bleak folk-writer’s sensibility: “We walked out through / The dew dappled brambles / And sat upon the fence.”
Sometimes Callahan is at his best when he’s at his simplest. He sings to great effect over languid violins and ominous bass on the Appalachia traditional song, “In the Pines”. “Say Valley Maker” is pretty in its heavy isolation, with circular guitar strumming, mournful strings and Callahan’s beautifully dark phrasing. He ingeniously uses the noun “phoenix” as a verb in this closing stanza: “So bury me in wood / And I will splinter / Bury me in stone / And I will quake / Bury me in water / And I will geyser / Bury me in fire / And I’m gonna phoenix.”
At his best, Callahan can take you on a journey to places visited by Van Morrison and Nick Drake and other prettily somber songsmiths. Perhaps that’s the reason some of it works, and some of it doesn’t. Much of his work feels better enjoyed through the coldness of a studio and in solitude. You don’t share Callahan, you hoard him to yourself.
A classic like “Cold-Blooded Old Times” feels a bit light, and in need of a quicker pace. Four of the stronger tracks come from his 2005 Smog release “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love”, an album that featured Jim White on drums and former girlfriend Joanna Newsom on piano. “Diamond Dancer”, from “Woke On a Whaleheart”, is a slick track that feels like vintage David Bowie off “Let’s Dance”.
“Bathysphere” is a strangely alluring track about a child’s dreams being crushed by a parent. The song was hauntingly performed by another former girlfriend, Cat Power, on her stellar “What Would the Community Think?” It might have been nice to add a track like “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast” from his previous album, if just to hear Callahan raise his voice to yell out “Sweet desire and soft thoughts, return to me!” — with that growling guitar, heavy percussion and swelling strings. — Words by David D. Robbins Jr.