May 2009

Arts & Letters

In search of a songwriter

By Robert Forster

It's lonesome out there on the prairie. There are eagles up in the sky, and birds, lots of birds, and lakes, and wolves, plenty of wolves, and rivers, branches and trees, and even the odd bee. The songwriters that describe this landscape are urbanites who may not feel comfortable in nature, but are happy to refer to it and the early-'70s song styles and sounds that accompanied the first golden age of music that brought together the rock world and the great outdoors. Back then it was called country rock or cosmic country, and it included everyone from The Flying Burrito Brothers to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Jeff Walker to Waylon Jennings, to those denim kings of the cash register the Eagles. Then it faded, as the fashion passed, and everyone cut their hair and shined their belt buckles and played it way straighter. The past ten years have seen a re-engagement with both the era's music and its mother-nature muse. And where once the gaze was post-'60s comedown, with plenty of dope and whisky to knock off the edges and keep the beat loose, the current crop has forsaken the cowboys and their ladies and the good times past for a more neurotic and charged reading of the landscape itself. So there are rocks and valleys and rivers, and songwriters in their twenties and thirties investing these words with new meaning to the sounds found in the hippie record collections of their mums and dads and turned-on, layabout friends.

One of the larger homes of this music in Australia is Spunk Records: established in 1998, it has a large and hip roster of local and overseas artists who operate in the indie-rock market. Most of the acts sell hundreds or a few thousand copies of each album, but a high turnover of releases and breakout successes, such as Arcade Fire and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, have ensured the label's health and a situation where it often has as many records coming out in a given month as its distributor, the music-industry giant EMI. Spiritually, Spunk is a throwback to the '70s, when record companies were run on the taste of their managers and A&R departments and financed by big sellers, and the vibe was artist-friendly. The economics of the music business have destroyed the large-scale model of the major labels; but niche markets remain, pumped by low-cost recording, vinyl sales, constant touring and the propensity of the artists involved to release albums every two years to an audience eager to follow the twists and turns of their favourite songwriters. Bill Callahan, Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy and Wagons are all on Spunk, and benefit from the freedom and indulgence the system provides: it means Callahan has been able to develop as Smog, and then blossom under his own name; Wagons have made their best album on the fourth attempt; and the prolific Will Oldham, under the Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy banner, has made one too many albums in far too short a time and crashed badly.

Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is Bill Callahan's second album since he dropped the appellation Smog. He resides in Austin, Texas, and his career has taken him from acoustic-guitar home recordings, through electric instruments, band line-ups and recording studios, to the lush instrumentation and widescreen shimmer of his current album. It has been a journey to watch, and the success of Sometimes I Wish comes not only from a strong and pointed set of songs, but from the placement of Callahan's dark baritone voice in a pool of sound that is sweet and uplifting. The effect is of beauty coating the beast, and is redolent of those terrific late-'60s recordings by booze-ridden, gravel-voiced actors such as Richard Harris and Lee Marvin. Callahan's earlier wry, monotone delivery did have its pleasures, and seemed to have found a home amid the minimal folk structures of A River Ain't Too Much to Love (2005). Here, though, he has thrown the dice, artistically and probably financially, and brought in a string section and some lovely guitar playing to enrich the songs and find new places for his voice to go.

Not that Callahan is easy or accessible, a would-be-mainstream artist. There are too many idiosyncrasies layered in his music for him to hope to gain the late-'60s AM-radio success of prime Glen Campbell or Bobby Goldsboro, which in instrumentation and sweep Sometimes I Wish echoes. And that's the lovely core of this record: the vibrant re-creation of a grand, string-driven and twangy-guitared era of pop playing off against a songwriter happy to croon "It's time to put God away" over and over through the verses of a nine-minute song. At heart Callahan is a minimalist, in lyric and in melody; he uses repetition in both so his songs are taut and razor-sharp. On this album the melodies are particularly good, and the lyrics punchier and funnier: "I ended up in search of ordinary things / Like how can a wave possibly be?" Add the cream of production, and Callahan has made his best album so far.

He and Will Oldham are often bracketed together as singer-songwriters; both gained recognition in the mid '90s and have grown from raw early albums made in a tortured folk style to a classicism of song-craft and sound that hasn't chipped away character. And while Callahan staggers his releases so there is at least the sense of a breath taken between albums, Oldham - recording under the Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy moniker - ploughs on, racking up five studio albums and three EPs since 2006. Some of the work is collaborative, but the workload is punishing nonetheless. He possesses a fine musical mind, and even in the turbulence of so much released work can imbue each album with a sense of place and intent. The Letting Go (2006) was an austere, string-driven collection of songs recorded in Iceland; Lie Down in the Light (2008), a warm set of folk parables made in Nashville. Beware, from its sound and design, was intended to be a joyous, full-band record that kicked Oldham out on the road to do the press interviews he usually avoids, and a long run of touring. The first and last songs, ‘Beware Your Only Friend' and ‘Afraid Ain't Me', fulfil the brief; the trouble is that everything between them sounds tired and has been bettered on previous albums.

Oldham needs a break from the studio, and no amount of cute tricks - be it glockenspiel and trumpet solos, handclaps, phased '70s-country guitar or choirs - can cover up weak melodies or what are for him exhausted song genres, such as the country ballad or the spooky folk tune. The two strong songs are sturdy and big-chorused, and an album built on them would have been another step in Oldham's career; unfortunately, he has either not given himself the time to write the remainder of the album in their style, or has been happy to have the best numbers as bookends to a set of songs that back away from their challenge. By ‘There is Something I Have to Say', song ten of 13, with the singer yet again mournfully chewing over the failed communication between him and his partner, accompanied by a plucked Spanish guitar, it's time for someone else to come on down the highway, some band with a spring in their step who know how to wrap the mysteries of the universe - and that includes warning off musicians trying to "crack on" to the singer's sister - in an album that runs to just 33-minutes-and-3-seconds flat.

Wagons could only have come from present-day Melbourne or a farm outside Sunbury circa 1974. They are a satirical country-rock band, far broader than the poker-faced Callahan and Oldham but with a heart and skill to their songs that pushes them beyond being a comedy act. They are led by Henry Wagons; and, as with all deep-voiced singers, from Johnny Cash to Tex Perkins and The Handsome Family's Brett Sparks, when you get down to the crooning register it can become a marvellous weapon in playing the straight a little crooked and the crooked a little straight. The Rise and Fall of Goodtown is not a concept album, but all the concerns of the country-rock suite are lovingly covered, from the lure of the roulette wheel (‘The Gambler') to the mess a bewitching woman can make of a man's mind (‘Evette'), to the simple hedonistic joys of being in a band (‘Drive All Night Till Dawn'). There's a touch of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in ‘Love Me Like I Love You'; but Wagons, besides owing a major debt to the '70s, have managed to filter and master enough of their influences to cut fresh ground for themselves, and make an album that's short and sharp and very entertaining.

It has been a quiet and unspectacular start to the year, with no hot breakthrough bands, such as Vampire Weekend or Fleet Foxes were in 2008. Bruce Springsteen, Morrissey, Franz Ferdinand, Neil Young, to an extent Antony and the Johnsons, and now Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy have all made albums that have failed to meet expectations. Nothing seems to have caught fire; certainly no singer-songwriter is cutting through in a big way. Bill Callahan's Sometime I Wish We Were an Eagle will deservedly be on best-of-the-year lists: he's made a very fine record. Something is still missing, though - some new songwriter willing to stake out new territory and leave nature well enough alone. Or, as Henry Wagons succinctly puts it: "Why do we talk about the birds and the bees / When one is in the flowers and the other is in the trees."

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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