Over the course of the last decade, Bill Callahan has slowly but surely worked his way right up to the very top of my skewed American indie singer songwriter pile (a pile that is actually more populated than one might think). As each subsequent Bill Callahan or Smog release has slow-burned its way into my affection, my love for Mr Callahan’s oeuvre has deepened. Since the recent release of Dream River, that despite being a fine enough LP hasn’t yet clicked with me in the way that the previous album Apocalypse did, my obsessions have deviated to three of Bill’s earlier Smog releases – the subtly great latter day Smog album, Supper, the amusingly titled and particularly varied and sprawling Dongs of Sevotion and, possibly greatest of all, 1999’s imperious Knock Knock, an album that is as close to perfection as a skewed American singer songwriter can get. So whilst I was less than enamoured upon pulling out 1999 and 1992 from the hat of delight/doom – 1999 being previously plundered for one of Nick’s themes, 1992 being a fallow year for me due to doing the ‘finding oneself’ thing in Australia at the time – I became increasingly happy with my choice of album over the course of the fortnight leading up to record club night as each subsequent play revealed a little more depth, warmth and beauty to a record that I already regarded as one of the best.
But just what it is that makes Knock Knock so great is hard to pin down (as I am about to demonstrate). On paper Knock Knock sounds less than edifying. Four electric guitar tracks that chug along nicely but where not a lot happens – Held, No Dancing, Cold Blooded Old Times and Hit The Ground Running. Five acoustic tracks where even less happens, ending in the barely there Left Only With Love..and the opening (vaguely) Laurie Andersonesque Let’s Move to The Country, in which nothing much happens in a slightly more off-kilter way. So to conclude…unless you’re a fan of William Basinski, in which case the album is all over the place…not a lot happens! But this album’s all about subtlety, nuance, wit and poise. A study in the ‘less is more’ approach to music making. Whilst the aforementioned electric tracks provide the hooks it’s the quieter tracks that offer the breathtakingly beautiful moments that come along every so often in the Bill Callahan discography. River Guard, Sweet Treat, I Could Drive Forever and, to cap it all, the exquisite Teenage Spaceship repay rapt attention and a quiet room; initially they were the tracks I was least interested in. Now, I listen in spellbound attention as they meander through their (lack of) paces marvelling at Callahan’s ability to say so much through so little, both musically and lyrically.
For those of you who only know Bill Callahan through his later self-titled work, Knock Knock may seem a spartan and more left-field affair than they are used to. Callahan has become such a refined and sophisticated writer in recent times that the rawer earlier Smog work can seem like the work of a different artist altogether. But the difference would be made even more stark for anyone who chanced upon Smog in their very early days (when they made Guided By Voices seem positively Hi-Fi) and had then given up on them. Because by Knock Knock, Callahan had worked out his strengths (and, importantly teamed up with US indie superman Jim O’Rourke) and was well on the way to documenting what has gone on to become one of the most vital, vibrant and astonishing chapters in the great American songbook. And within that chapter, Knock Knock more than holds its own as one of the great skewed indie American song writer albums!
Rob listened: I share Tom’s reverence for Bill Callahan. He’s one of the few songwriters who can bring forth pure joy just by doing what he’s doing and doing it so very well. I realise i’m terrible at getting to the root of what makes any artist or record any good, but my take on Callahan is that his deep, resonant voice and his deliberate, deceptively simple approach to writing (how few words has ‘Teenage Spaceship’ and how much redolence of adolescent isolation) tell of self-confidence and inspire a feeling of safety. ‘Yes’, we think, ‘this guy really DOES know what he’s doing’. And we put our trust in him. I spend a lot of time listening to his records (‘Apocalypse’ and ‘Sometime I Wish…’ may be my most reached for records of the last two years) but I don’t spend too much time parsing them. Even after all these years, they are unfolding like gentle mysteries. I feel like we’re growing old together, and I really like that. At this stage I can’t imagine what a Callahan mis-step could possibly sound like. And it’s nice to have someone you can depend upon.
Graham listened: Not often I lie in a bath of warm chocolate, but if I did, I would probably add this to the accompanying playlist. I was really intrigued by its subtlety and although not a huge amount going on, it just washed over nicely. It fitted so well on a night where we indulge in a fair amount of bombastic sounds. Off to see how much Dairy Milk it takes to fill a bath.
Nick listened: I’ve only listened to post-Smog Smog, when Callahan has used his own name, but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve heard, some of it very, very much. This too; unsurprisingly – it’s the same guy, and produced by Jim O’Rourke, who I really like. “Teenage Spaceship” was especially lovely. This has replaced Rumours on the theoretical list of albums to buy in my head. It sits just below 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle.