Bill Callahan Woke on a Whaleheart

Evoking a little bit of Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson, Bill Callahan emerges from Smog with one of the finest records of his career. Mostly up and teasingly wise, Callahan has lessons to pass along and his narratives are thoughtful and amusing in spite of his low-key, almost indifferent delivery. Songs like "From the Rivers to the Ocean” are touching and timeless thanks to Callahan’s hard hearted voice and the wondrous arrangements by Neil Michael Hagerty. Featuring strings and gospel singers doing back-up vocals, these songs are orchestral, meshing implausibly with the seedy folk of "Diamond Dancer” and measured whimsy of "Sycamore.” Callahan offers up a church-y guide vocal for himself on the odd gospel of "The Wheel,” while the devilish soundtrack of "Honeymoon Child” is perfectly mysterious, given Callahan’s narrative. Of all the philosophical pronouncements here that elicit a smile, none are as old-fashioned/new-fangled as "A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man,” which is a country music highlight to boot. Profoundly fascinating, Woke on a Whaleheart is a grand achievement for Bill Callahan and a wonderful, accessible record. (Drag City, (Drag City)