Bill Callahan has woven a career just shy of three decades out of the simple art of excessive understatement – in chords, melodies, and even lyrics, so much so that some critics have labeled him introverted, and some even say alienated.
It’s an easy comparison to draw, given Callahan’s penchant for austere, minimalistic chords and melodies which can, to some, border on being inaccessible or even depressing. He delivers lyrics dispassionately in a throaty, baritone yarl, often out of the right-hand corner of his mouth, almost like an afterthought. Nevertheless the Maryland-based lo-fi indie singer-songwriter rolled out 13 albums as the bandleader of his rock group Smog between 1990 and 2005, before delivering another eight sessions under his given name between 2007 and the present.
Now out in support of his latest Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, which drops on June 14, Callahan’s summerlong tour crisscrosses the country a couple of times before regrouping in Europe for the month of October. The release is his first in six years and it is massive, spanning some 20 new songs, every one of which is classic Callahan. They roll out like a nondescript voice murmuring in your ear during a dream in a spaced-out take on folk.
He just doesn’t make tunes like anyone else. These are nothing-to-write-home-about chords and melodies – it’s the lyric contents that sell here, but ironically, usually not on your first time through. Sometimes too simple, others too unusual, these are tunes which seem to be designed to bloom in your head over time.
Lyrical themes revolve around animals, nature, relationships, moving and sometimes politics, and non sequiturs abound. “It feels good to be writing again/ clear water flows from my pen,” he deadpan croons in “Writing.” Or from the title cut: “Have you ever seen a shepherd/ afraid to find his sheep.” Or try this: “Lovin’ me like no other/ mornin’ is my godmother.” His is a more free-form approach than the usual verse and chorus approach of reiterating melodies and lyrics in songwriting.
Expect simple musical structures devoid of embellishment, with emotionless vocalizing and those beyond quirky lyrics. The tour opened June 13 in Southern California and will pass through Big Sur on June 17. The ticket includes a mandatory shuttle ride to the venue from Loma Vista Gardens and shuttle proceeds go directly to benefit Apple Pie Pre-School in Big Sur.
BILL CALLAHAN 7pm Monday, June 17. Henry Miller Memorial Library, 48603 Highway 1, Big Sur. $100. 667-2574, henrymiller.org