You could say this is Bill Callahan's debut album. Although he's sired a dozen albums under the name of Smog, he has laid that name to rest and, well, WOKE ON a WHALEHEART. Another debut. With the same maverick spirit of, say, a Nilsson or a Cat Stevens, Bill Callahan has made an album that is born of no school of music other than what is in his heart and soul. Boasting the propulsive, glittering and classically pretty arrangements of Neil Michael Hagerty, this album manages to bypass the trends of the modern day while shunning retro entrapments. With a mix of gospel backing vocals by Deani Pugh-Flemmings of the Olivet Baptist Church, the incendiary guitar work of Pete Denton, and the honeyed violins of Elizabeth Warren, the music on this album touched on gospel, tough pop and American Light Opera.
Woke on a Whaleheart finds longtime lo-fi pioneer Bill Callahan stepping out under his own name for the first time from behind his nearly 20-year alias known simply as (Smog)--with or without the parentheses depending on the era. This new liberation hardly finds the songwriter indulging in solo album bombast (not surprising, since Smog was essentially a one-man project the whole time). Instead, Bill Callahan keeps his feet firmly on the artsy-pop ground. A haunting circular piano propels "Night" as if on an aerial starlit breeze, and "Diamond Dancer" could be an Ashes to Ashes-era David Bowie track, if the Thin White Duke handed vocals over to Lou Reed or the Jazz Butcher. Instrumentation is soothingly unobtrusive, and Callahan's conversational vocals are so relaxed, they occasionally threaten to fade away like a wisp of smoke. Oddly, his most impassioned singing comes on the country-shuffling "The Wheel," which turns a blues call-and-response on its ear, preceding sung lines with the same line spoken-word, as if Callahan is reminding himself of which lyrics come next. Make no mistake though--Bill Callahan knows exactly what he's doing, and Woke on a Whaleheart is a fine and fulfilling listen. --Ben Heege