« All Reviews

Bill Callahan

Rough Travel for a Rare Thing

[Drag City; 2010]

By ; April 8, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Bill Callahan caught many ears with last year’s Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, and justly, I might add; the record was phenomenal (though, sadly absent from our Best Albums of 2009 countdown), with Callahan’s wry sense of humor blending and shining seamlessly with some seriously affecting songwriting…just like always. It garnered a boatload of critical acclaim and seemed to draw a fresh batch of new fans into the Callahan camp. So what better sort of victory lap than a live album highlighting recent gems like “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”?

Well, hold on; The enigmatic songwriter’s first live album Rough Travel For a Rare Thing, a double-LP and mp3-only, documents a 2007 performance, predating Eagle by 2 years and timestamped around the era when Callahan first forsook the long-running Smog moniker for his own name. Virtually half the material here is from the final Smog record A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (deep-cut “Bowery” can be found on the “Rock Bottom Riser” EP), with the rest cherry-picked from a few other of the man’s records.

The first thing you’ll hear after dropping the needle is Callahan muttering the words “We’re going to get right down to business tonight,” before he does just that. Indeed, there’s precious little else to be heard here, save for a few thank-you’s, as Callahan and his well-oiled band opt to let the material speak for itself. A majority of the songs stick closely to their studio-recorded counterparts, with the album’s real highlights coming in a few major exceptions: “Held,” from 1999’s Knock Knock, transplants the original’s distorted lead guitars for swaggering honky-tonk fiddles, before a searing guitar solo joins the party at the track’s conclusion; closer “Bathysphere,” the oldest artifact here from 1995’s Wild Love, veers from the sprawling Americana of most of the set, with its boom-boom-thwack drum intro, and sounds like a sublimely unplugged take on the substantially eerier original.

Most of the River material fares just fine, though some of the charm afforded by that record’s austere production is lost in the live shuffle; none of it sounds markedly worse, but, for instance, a 9-minute version of “The Well” that serves as the record’s penultimate track does nothing—besides carrying on for two minutes longer—to distance itself from the original, and feels just a tad limp. Elsewhere, the extended ending of the already-lovely “Say Valley Maker” does a bit to make the song feel more sweeping an epic.

So while the set is hardly revelatory, or any sort of all-encompassing document of Callahan’s live prowess, it’s a versatile record that showcases some of the man’s more affecting material in a professional and confident light… just a bit of a shame that “Too Many Birds” had yet to have materialized.


Tags: , ,

blog comments powered by Disqus
Read about our scores and rating system here
Latest News and Media
Features More
Twitter icon_twitter Follow

Banquet Media