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I’m not sure why BILL CALLAHAN decided to retire the Smog moniker and put out Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City) under his own name. There’s no sudden shift on the new album: Callahan just takes another step down the path he’s been on since his obscurantist lo-fi days, moving steadily toward clarity. His melodies have grown more direct and satisfying, and his lyrics have developed a clearer focus on the unstable ephemera that arise from human relationships–each time out Callahan renders his subjects with a bit more empathy and philosophical maturity. In “Diamond Dancer” he sees in a woman’s hard dancing the evidence that she’s finally decided to fight her fear of the world, and in “Sycamore,” over a lattice of graceful, meandering guitar and violin, the narrator remembers how a friend’s father taught him to box and finds in those lessons a larger wisdom. The record was coproduced by Neil Hagerty, who helped shape the rather nonchalant arrangements–they don’t do any favors for shticky tunes like the country dud “The Wheel,” but fortunately that sort of material is in short supply. I still have to get used to Callahan’s clipped baritone all over again on every new record, but his continuing evolution as a songwriter makes the effort worth it. –Peter Margasak
The Sun City Girls did a lot of things in their quarter century together–faux-ethnic pop, free-improv clatter, conspiracy-theory radio plays, a spot-on version of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones”–but they rarely toured. Now that their drummer, Charles Gocher, has died of cancer, they never will again. But SCG guitarist SIR RICHARD BISHOP had embarked on a career of his own even before Gocher fell ill, touring relentlessly and amassing a solo discography almost as catholic as his old band’s. The forthcoming Polytheistic Fragments, his sixth solo disc and first for Drag City, deftly shuffles quasi-Indian reveries, Django-esque melodic flights, and terse Chet Atkins-style picking, then wraps up with a languid desert-walking finale. Bishop is best experienced live, though: his piratical demeanor and enormous energy make it easy to forget it’s just one guy with an acoustic guitar up there. –Bill Meyer
Callahan headlines and Bishop opens. See also Saturday. Advance tickets to the Friday show are sold out. a 9 PM, Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $14, $12 in advance. A