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Lovely, dark, and deep

Bill Callahan hides in plain sight
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  June 8, 2009

SWEET NOTHINGS For Callahan, "words sometimes feel like a bag of marbles," something to arrange for density and texture rather than meaning.

I've never met a baritone who particularly dug another baritone. If anything, a wariness simmers between them. Kind of like being noticeably tall or having a really small nose, a low voice seems more like a burdensome trait than a unifying quirk. Take Bill Callahan, who comes to the Brattle Theatre Monday. Despite "liking" Jim Reeves, Callahan reliably selects the baritone as his least favorite in a given barbershop line-up. At the same time, he shares with his fellow baritones an empathy as rare as the register itself.

"Baritones are meant to be alone," he writes from Austin. "Like me. Alone and curled in a fetal ball. Shivering."

Those more familiar with Callahan's output in the '90s under the moniker of Smog — or, sorry, copy editors everywhere, (Smog) — might need this cleared up: he's only fucking around. When on the opening track of his newest (and second) solo album, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (Drag City), he sings, "I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again," he's about right with the trajectory — though that song ("Jim Kain") and its eight far-flung neighbors might be some of the most radiant music the guy's ever made. Perhaps with this second iteration of "darkness" he's talking opacity, which abounds here.

"Words sometimes feel like a bag of marbles, or something that you can arrange in a way that has to do with their density and texture more than their meaning," he says of his lyrics. There's benefits to thinking in terms of texture: a song about a breeze caressing two lovers ("Rococo Zephyr"), streaked with stratospheric AM-radio strings and winking pianos, might be unbearably stock if said breeze weren't a "rococo zephyr." But elsewhere, the disconnect between what words can and can't convey becomes the subject itself, as in "Eid Ma Clack Shaw," which finds its own narrator desperately transcribing scraps of "the perfect song" from the vanishing remains of a dream — only to end up with a string of gibberish that the song, of course, turns perfect.

There's ample candor to balance his abstractions — narrators doggedly "search for ordinary things" and "tell stories without knowing the end" — but Callahan shines brightest when best hidden. In "Ein Ma" he abruptly shifts into the perspective of a horse: "I flipped my forelock/Twitched my withers/I reared and bucked." It may all be a dream, or "a dream it was a dream" — but it matters little on Callahan's property.

For him, the most dreamlike aspect of the record was the opportunity to construct arrangements with Austin-based producer Brian Beattie. "I gave him terse instructions for each song and also an overarching idea for the whole album. He picked up on it right off the bat, and I just left him toiling away in his studio for weeks. I'd check in with him every so often, listen and discuss. It's a nice feeling, having someone on your side like that, who understands."

As the two would have it, Beattie's arrangements (sweeping strings that rise within the songs like the sun among the hills) smartly avoid the "comical extremes" of schmaltz and bombast that often join "fancy-dancy arrangements." Perhaps one of the most endearing aspects of Sometimes is that its restraint never comes off like withholding; you value what you're given more than you long for what you might expect. Even in its glimmering simplicity, the album feels like the profound accomplishment that 20 years of practice should bring — yet it's almost as if Callahan couldn't help but be deep.

BILL CALLAHAN + LIGHTS | Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St, Cambridge | June 15 at 9 pm | $20 | 617.876.4275

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