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Bill Callahan
Rough Travel For A Rare Thing Wyndham Wallace , March 31st, 2010 07:09

1996, and Bill Callahan, still known as Smog, has completed an intimate, awkward showcase at London's 12 Bar Club. He's unveiled a song about a failed relationship and its poignant reminders, "All your women things / All your frilly things / Scattered round my room". But he's continued by singing about how "All of these things / I gathered them / And I made a dolly / I made a dolly / A spread-eagle dolly / Out of your frilly things". This explicit honesty about painful obsession shocks his audience, especially your front row correspondent, and when I run into him afterwards in a nearby pub I'm moved to tell him clumsily that he's just performed "the most depressing show I've ever seen". It's meant as a compliment, but Callahan looks confused, even hurt, and scurries away hurriedly.

2007, and Bill Callahan steps onto the stage of The Toff in Melbourne, Australia. "Let's get right down to business, " he says, and the band breaks into 'Our Anniversary' without a moment's hesitation. This is how Rough Travel For A Rare Thing begins, and within minutes the changes that have come over Bill Callahan over the past decade are as explicit as his youthful lyrics. Nowadays his work may remain introspective, still grounded in an impulse to share little details that speak volumes, but there's a maturity to his songwriting and his performance, a no-nonsense confidence that is light years away from the man that fled from that pub all those years ago. He seems to have grown into his voice, now a rich baritone after the rough edged, tentative tones he once employed. His records, too, are ambitious affairs in comparison to the lo-fi approach of, say, 1993's Julius Caesar: last year's Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle was an almost baroque, beautifully arranged collection whose strings could have graced Jimmy Webb compositions.

Having said that, sadly, Rough Travel For A Rare Thing is not a lush affair, and its release – vinyl only – reflects that it is an oddity, a record that the label itself flippantly admits on their sales sheet is "pitched towards the in-the-know tastemakers and all their gullible friends". Recorded in a club little bigger than the 12 Bar, it finds him backed by three fiddle players, a drummer and bassist, older songs given a more rustic, folksy makeover much in the style of 2005's_ A River Ain't Too Much To Love_. The bleak monochrome of his early recordings is gone, but the fuller sound of recent recordings is also absent, with the overall feeling being that this is the sound of Callahan touring on a budget, seeking to make the most of financial restrictions rather than dwell on the shortcomings they may inflict. In fact, it's hard to understand the point of the release until you recognise that it is, exactly as Drag City suggest, one for the fans and little else. It's not, like many live albums, a bridge into Callahan's work, a concise summary of his career given extra weight by the raucous response of a partisan audience. It's simply further proof that he is one of the more eloquent troubadours trawling his way from stage to stage, one that remains a secret treasured by disciples and otherwise overlooked.

And so we're offered a selection of sparse, frankly raw recordings of eleven songs – four from A River Ain't Too Much To Love - that come across as live demos bolstered by enthusiastic applause. A world-weary 'Let Me See The Colts' is engaging, and the closing 'Bathysphere' is almost rousing, but the tender rendition of 'Bowery' (from the Rock Bottom Riser EP) is somewhat undermined by a guitar that seems ever so slightly out of tune. And while a rough and ready take on what might rank as a Smog classic, 'Cold Blooded Old Times', nearly provokes audience participation, it all remains a little underwhelming, though significantly it's also honest, a quality Callahan has never flinched from.

For those who were there, and for those who have seen him play in similar surroundings, Rough Travel For A Rare Thing is therefore a great opportunity to relive what would inevitably have been an intense experience. For other fans, it might shed new light on old songs. Ultimately, however, there are better ways to experience Callahan: live, in person, or recorded, in a studio. In fact, at times here he seems so comfortable in his own skin, compared to the younger man who write some of these lyrics, that he seems almost detached from the songs. Only a version of 'The Well', nine minutes long and brimful of musical and narrative tension, proves close to indispensable. Beyond that, there's little here to dissuade non-believers that Bill Callahan a.k.a. Smog is anything but an acquired taste that gets easier to stomach the older he gets. Put the LP on a merchandise table at a show, however, and it might prove hard to resist…

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