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Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse”: The Transcendent Emergence of a Great Songwriter

3rd January


Achingly gorgeous from first song to last, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse (Drag City Records, 2011) sounds like the work of some 21st-century Jerry Jeff Walker who spent many hours ransacking his parents’ collection of Van Morrison LPs as a kid.

As on all records Callahan has released under his own name since leaving Smog behind in 2005, these songs color spare musical landscapes with flourishes of flute, piano or fiddle, the elegant but very occasional shuffle of percussion, and hard-bitten lyrics delivered in the kind of off-the-cuff, sort-of-singing-but-really-just-talking-to-ya manner of Walker or Lou Reed.

Taken as a whole, this brief song cycle explores a courageous and curious imagination that looks away from nothing and takes no easy turns. Callahan speaks of the man that “love’s coltish punch” empowered him to become. He discovers “the bee’s nest in the buffalo’s chest.” He watches Letterman somewhere in Australia while undressing American jingoism with ruthless sarcasm, dropping the names of giants like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones or Johnny Cash along the way.

The music throughout Apocalypse replicates the whimsy, beauty and restraint of records like Van Morrison’s exquisite Veedon Fleece, Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut Songs, or Will Oldham’s masterpiece, I See a Darkness. Just when you think you’ve got Callahan’s number, though, he shifts his tone to a truculent and foreboding rocker like “America!”

Apocalypse is urgently worthy of your attention; the same can be said of every Bill Callahan record to date. It is available for just five bucks at Amazon.com’s MP3 store; or you can pony up for the cause by buying directly from his label here.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Best Albums of 2011 Series: “In Love with Oblivion,” Crystal Stilts

26th December

For the first foreboding minute of “Sycamore Tree,” the opening track of the second LP from Brooklyn-based quintet Crystal Stilts, you might think you’re about to hear a clumsy-but-inspired take on The Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth.” Which would be an appropriate place to kick off the festivities on In Love with Oblivion, really, since Brad Hargett and his reverb-muddied baritone sounds like he’s shoveling somewhere deep within himself to unearth his inner Jim Morrison throughout the album.

Kyle Forester’s keyboard clamors in the tortured dark of the song as you wonder if you’re trapped inside some Twilight Zone rerun. Then Andy Adler kicks in with a mean bass line and suddenly the track erupts with chugging percussion straight out of a Sun Records-era Johnny Cash single. Guitarist JB Townsend turns in licks lifted directly from the psychobilly playbook of The Cramps, Hargett enters with a vocal performance that sounds like he’s singing from six-feet under, and the blue-plate special of influences these guys serve throughout Oblivion begins.

And that’s just track one.

Through the Floor” delivers a radiant and similarly lo-fi festival of hand-claps, jangling guitar layered over a stinging solo here and there, and Hargett’s booming voice draped in the chirping echo of background vocals. If Phil Specter wasn’t in jail for killing Lana Clarkson you almost might think he’s the man moving the knobs at the console. As if guiding you on some comprehensive tour of all-things ’60s, Townsend saunters out of the doo-wop era and into Byrds-brand psychedelia on the exceedingly jangly “Silver Sun,” where he sounds like he’s stolen Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker and fully intends to keep it for himself.

Along with tracks like “Flying Into the Sun” or “Shake the Shackles,” “Silver Sun” is equal parts Highway 61-era Dylan and Murder Ballads/Let Love In-era Nick Cave as Hargett continues his relentless tribute to Joy Division and The Doors. By the time you make it through the nearly eight-minute-long “Alien Rivers,” the masterpiece of the album and easily among the finest tracks cut by any band all year, you might ask yourself “Why did no one cut this record in 1965?” You encounter the ghosts of many other bands throughout Oblivion, most of them at least as old as your parents–The Ventures, The Box Tops, Velvet Underground, to name a few.

Oblivion actually is the first of two records the Stilts have dropped this year; they released a fascinating EP in November called Radiant Door. There, Hargett shows off his upper register with such aplomb on “Dark Eyes” you wonder why he doesn’t go there more often. If you thought you heard a drowsy interpretation of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” somewhere in Townsend’s guitar work on “Alien Rivers,” Hargett makes “Dark Eyes” sound like it’s Michael Stipe Karaoke Night in your stereo.

A couple tracks later the Stilts turn in a devastating cover of “Still as the Night” by baritone badass Lee Hazelwood, known to you as the dude who wrote “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” for Nancy Sinatra in 1966. Hazelwood died in 2007 at age 78, but Hargett sounds perfectly pleased to carry the legend’s “Cowboy Psychedelia” torch himself. The cover is worth the price of admission alone, and the EP as a whole suggests that the Stilts are far from exhausting the creative vision they explore on their first two LPs.

The frenzy of genres critics contrive to describe the Stilts’ sound is a testament to how intensely the band has listened to the many long-ago groups they worship throughout this LP. From “garage-pop” to “neo-psychedelia” to “psych-pop” to “shoegaze” to the dreaded “post-punk,” a term as overused these days as “psychedelic,” what you end up with here is a band that has gone so far in a direction all their own you need a lexicon to interpret the mumbling and fevered attempts bloggers make at helping people understand what the hell they sound like.

To this blogger they mostly sound like a band called Crystal Stilts, and the wild fun they obviously are having throughout In Love with Oblivion makes it clear that they would have it no other way.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Everlast: Folsom Prison Blues

21st June

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At long last, we can now hear Everlast’s mash-up cover of Johnny Cash’s legendary “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is slated to appear on his long-delayed new album, Love, War, and the Ghost of Whitey Ford. The album’s currently on deck for a September 24 release–which means absolutely nothing, of course, because the album has been on deck for a release for months to no avail, pissing Everlast off to no end and infecting his fans with a brutal case of rumor-mill blues. And that’s no fun at all–just ask AC/DC fans.

Improbable as it may sound, it turns out that Johnny and hip-hop go damned well together. That’s hardly surprising–the man did pull off completely convincing covers of tunes by Danzig, Soundgarden and NIN before he died. Now Everlast’s cover of Johnny is powerful and inspired, bringing new life to the country anthem with a full-bodied production that verges on overkill but, ultimately, walks the line between tact and bombast with stirring restraint (BTW: we proudly accept the “Worst Pun of the Year” award–we’d like to thank the academy, our mothers, and every bad joke ever told.)

Now if only we could get this fucking album in our hands! Good grief, Erik–you made music with a group called La Cosa Nostra, for Christ’s sake. Give the bastards an offer they can’t refuse, will ya? Check out the “Folsom Prison” cover here. Enjoy!