Out & About

That Bill Callahan's musical pseudonym comes from an opaque cloud of carcinogenic pollution stirred up by the luxuries of modern living tells you what sort of mental state this no-fi nonconformist wallowed in when he started his one-man act back in the late 1980s. Smog's early cassette releases and Drag City albums were stuck in the mud of love lost, lust thwarted, obsessive eccentricity and other paraphernalia of personal oblivion. Callahan's droning collage experiments revealed a psyche that was as damaged as Twin Infinitives-era Royal Trux, only he seemed besieged by feckless ennui rather than narcissistic narcosis.

That he's seemed to crawl out of this bottomless emotional chasm in the past few years offers hope to even the most desolate angels and lost boys who feel that they've been down so long it's beginning to look like up. He's still pushing his psychobabble rabble, only he's folding it into a more lush instrumentation and arrangement. It's still pretty threadbare--his sparse guitar lines sting like hot water on cold hands over his basic rhythms, which are occasionally accented with lean string accompaniment or a backing vocal track--but compared to his early tape loops and noise detonations, his recent material is absolutely baroque.

Along the way, he's found a way to make the melancholic bittersweet and the psychopathic charming where other lo-fi exhibitionists--Lou Barlow, please take note--sound merely whiny and indulgent today. That's been the key to his enduring endearment. Sure, the epiphany that one relationship was a "Bad Investment" comes after his heart's crawled out of his chest and onto his sleeve and into the gutter on 1992's Forgotten Foundation. OK, he did promise to get so drunk, so drunk at "Your Wedding" and confessed that he "feels like Travis Bickle" ("37 Push Ups") on 1993's Julius Caesar. And, yes, he admitted that although his lover's orgasmic expression was beautiful, he liked it better when she faked it in "Your Face" off the 1994 Hey, Drag City compilation. But Callahan's a songwriter with pubic passions even when his narrator is six feet under: He entreats a widow to "Dress Sexy at My Funeral" on 2000's Dongs of Sevotion, and even hopes she'll tell those gathered "about the time we did it with fireworks above us."

Such casual sexual scrutiny makes you wonder if he's trying to be the Egon Schiele of indie rock, tracing libidinous lines and crenellated carnality through the air in quick, rough gestures that evoke more words than a thousand pictures. If he can keep maturing as a songwriter, he may do just that. Hell, it may even bring a smile to his face.

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Bret Mccabe