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BILL CALLAHAN (Carling Academy, Birmingham, April 27)


Love Leonard Cohen? Can’t get enough of Lou Reed? Then you’re sure to dig American balladeer Bill Callahan. For newcomers, Paul Samuels provides the commentary and the essential youtube links.

Bill (smog) Callahan

Bill Callahan is part of that American Alt Country/Folk thing, but definitely at the darker, more bitter end of the bile pile, like Will Oldham or the Handsome Family.

He serves up dark twisted tales of despair, death and a black humour with the vocal style of Lou Reed and the richness of Leonard Cohen. The songs tend to be stripped down, with a minimum of chords and a chord conserving attitude of "what's good enough for the verse is good enough for the chorus.

It's good stuff though and definitely suits those times when you find Prairie dust in your slippers.

Following a teenage interest in the SST bands and The Minutemen, he released bedroom recorded and bedroom quality cassettes on his own label but since 1990's debut album proper, Sewn To The Sky he has maintained a prolific output as Smog and also (Smog).

The forthcoming album Woke On A Whale Heart is the first album released under his own name. There are musical arrangements by Former Royal Trux man Neil Hagerty and it promises to be a more upbeat affair than his previous offerings.

So after having set the scene for an artist specialising in melancholic introspection, the first song up for grabs is dress Sexy At My Funeral from 2001's Dongs Of Sevotion album. The dearly departed's final request would certainly distract the mourners from the ham sandwiches.

"Oh Dress sexy at my funeral my good wife,

Wink at the minister, Blow kisses to my grieving brothers

Also tell them about how I gave to charity,

And tried to love my fellow man as best I could

But most of all don't forget about the time on the beach"

'Neath The Puke Tree was an ep released in 2000 containing re-recorded material and new songs. The best track is I Was A Stranger which pushes all the right Cowboy Junkies buttons for me.

With a warm steel guitar sound and a hesitant semi spoken vocal delivery, it feels like it should be a careworn and bruised but ultimately uplifting and comforting song. It's actually a haunting, potential serial killer serenade.

"In the last town, You should have seen what I was

I was worse than a stranger, I was well known"

The song fades out on a getting down to business solo like the Cowboys Junkies peerless Cheap Is How I Feel.

I Feel Like The Mother Of The World is from 2005's A River Ain't Too much Land.

The video with Chloe Sevigny is as bleak as it gets. The eye patched/black eyed chambermaid works her way round the hotel rooms while Bill Callahan is the TV newsreader on each telly in every room delivering the lyrics with intercut shots of disaster and turmoil.

Callahan has said it's about War or Peace. Israel, Palestine. The US and Iraq. The chorus is "I feel like the mother of the world, With two children fighting"

I like it's opening line "Whether or not there is any type of God, I'm not supposed to say". It echoes Nick Cave's song Into My Arms and that most unexpected opening line on religion in a pop song when Cave sings "I don't believe in an interventionist God".

I Break Horses is a subtle song worth a not so subtle metaphor...Guess what's not really about horses.

"I break horses. Doesn't take me long. Just a few well-placed words. And their wandering hearts are gone"

He's currently in a stable (ouch!) relationship with squeaky Folk elf Joanna Newsome and sings on her Ys album. Newsome also played piano on his song Rock Bottom Riser. He also had a farmer (Ouch! Ouch!) relationship with Chan Marshall (Cat Power) who recorded his song Red Apples.

The ultimate horse/woman metaphor song is The Byrds Chestnut Mare. Roger McGuinn's breathless croon never sounded better. The line "I'm gonna catch that horse if I can, And when I do I'll give her my brand" sounds more like the Rebecca Loos aspect of animal husbandry rather than a time honoured permanent method of identifying livestock.

But the real surprise for me was finding out that McGuinn's co writer was Jacques Levy: theatre director, song writer (later co wrote much of Dylan's Desire album) and clinical psychologist.

He met McGuinn after directing Oh! Calcutta! They were going to collaborate on a musical based on Peer Gynt, but the only song actually produced was Chestnut Mare. So let's get this straight then. Psychologist directs nudey 60s musical then goes on to write a song about chasing a horse that is actually a woman. And people wondered about Equus and Harry Potter in the chuddy nuddy?

Sycamore from the new album Woke On A Whale Heart is positively life affirming. Gorgeous Go Betweens guitar trills, a little less Lou Reedy and more of a Lunar feel. Stop sniggering at the back. Researchers (some of them wearing white coats) have proved there is a difference. It's the feelgood end of Alt Country with dads teaching sons to box and "You won't get hurt if you just keep your hands up and stand tall like a sycamore"

Follow the link for as good a summer song as you'll hear this summer.

(Bill Callahan plays at Academy on Fri April 27)

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