Bill Callahan has released about a dozen albums under the moniker Smog and briefly as (Smog), but Woke on a Whaleheart is his first under his own name. While Woke on a Whaleheart is a debut of sorts, it still contains the same wry and laconic narrative on previous Smog albums. Interestingly enough, though Callahan is recording under his own name, the songs are no more nor any less personal than the stories he told as Smog. In fact, the biggest difference between this album and previous ones, is the more decided detour toward country and gospel, genres in which Callahan has always expressed interest.
One of the best characteristics of Callahan’s songs is his dry wit. Sometimes veering towards morose, Callahan’s moody narratives shaped a weary world that was previously depicted by Blues singers. As Callahan added more instruments to the arrangements, the stories became more panoramic, painting a lush, full environment. Accompanied by Callahan’s distinctive baritone, his songs have a rugged edge that keep them from ever being cloying.
Woke on a Whaleheart begins with “From the River to the Ocean,” a gospel inflected musing on the passage of time. Much like Cat Power’s “The Greatest”, “From the River to the Ocean” benefits from the warm arrangements of the backing band. Though really just consisting of drums, a piano, guitars, bass, and a violin, the sound is quite rich and offsets the cynical lyrics with a warm glow. In fact, what struck me so much while listening to the song, was how similar it really was to Cat Power’s The Greatest. While not sacrificing their characteristic writing, both Callahan and Chan Marshall embrace a fuller sound.
“Footprints” is more of a country stomp, but a stomp that includes an aggressive guitar by Pete Denton that would sound at home on a Sonic Youth record. Like “From the River to the Ocean,” “Footprints” also uses a watery metaphor, this time as waves of the “tempting seas.” Perhaps the best song on the album, the exquisite “Diamond Dancer” follows “Footprints.” Grounded by one hell of a hypnotic bass line (bassist Steve Bernal sounding much like Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth), it is accompanied by a delicate tangle of acoustic guitars that only heighten the lurching bass. Aided by shrieking violins and moaning backing vocalists, “Diamond Dancer” is a primal, hypnotic song that is charged with energy.
Conversely, “Sycamore” is a languid folk song that is charged with reverb-soaked electric guitars and tinny acoustic guitars. The two sounds blend together creating a lovely textured arrangement. The layering continues near the end of the song as Callahan and Olivet Baptist Church singer, Deani Pugh-Flemmings, harmonize together: “sycamore got to grow down before it grows up.” Having Callahan’s baritone mirrored by Pugh-Flemmings’ rich, deep voice is a treat and adds a lovely contrast of sound.
“The Wheel” is a piano-laden country song that has Callahan speaking the lines before singing them, recalling the speak-singing of Bob Dylan. With added “field” recordings of people, the song becomes almost like a party being led by Callahan. “Day” has a wonderfully glittery synthesizer and Wurlitzer arrangement while also flitting along topics as varied as monkeys, potatoes, and finally telling the listener to “strive toward the light.”
Woke on a Whaleheart may be a debut for Bill Callahan, but it certainly fits along his body of work as Smog. Whaleheart uses the conventions of traditional American genres sprinkled with a few unexpected touches to balance the slightly skewed songwriting. These unexpected touches and wry lyrics are enough to keep these songs fresh and far from traditional. In fact, at times there’s a sense of displacement, as if the arrangements aren’t sure how it got mixed up with such quirky lyrics. It’s the balance of aesthetics that make the songs so successful and make them such an interesting listen.