Restless Record

Most people get bored, they take up a hobby, maybe watch a little more TV. Bill Callahan gets bored, he moves. “If you move to a place that you’ve never been to, then even the most mundane things, like finding a grocery store, become like an adventure,” he says. Among the towns he’s grown weary of in the last decade or so are San Francisco; Sacramento; Dover, New Hampshire; Buford, Georgia; and his native Pasadena, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. In the summer of 1998 he left rural Prosperity, South Carolina, where he was living with Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, for Chicago, where he’s not exactly a stranger: the city’s also home to Drag City, the record label that has put out ten albums and EPs by his musical persona, Smog.

That restlessness has informed Callahan’s work at least since 1990’s “Puritan Work Ethic,” from Smog’s Drag City debut, Sewn to the Sky. And the sinister “I Was a Stranger,” from the 1997 album Red Apple Falls, explicitly addresses some of the reasons a body might keep moving: “In the last town / You should have seen what I was / If I was a stranger / I was worse than a stranger / I was well known.” Now the seven-month itch is the theme of an entire album, Knock Knock, released a few weeks ago.

Most of Callahan’s lyrics are introspective, though he’s denied that they’re strictly autobiographical. (Hey, if he has the imagination to invent specific scenes like “Mother is smoking pot in the bathroom / I can hear her butt squeaking on the tub,” from the 1994 EP Burning Kingdom, out of whole cloth, more power to him.) But over time he’s learned to parlay his quirky, intimate expressions of ennui into stories with broader appeal.

Though he respectfully declined to discuss them, Callahan’s left behind a few women in his wanderings, including Marshall, former Smog collaborator Cynthia Dall, and Rollerderby editrix Lisa “Suckdog” Carver. The ten tunes on Knock Knock combine to tell the tale of a man who falls in love, moves to the boonies with his sweetheart, watches the dream disintegrate, and flees. On the album’s opener, “Let’s Move to the Country,” the guy’s ready and eager to settle down, declaring, “My travels are over.” But “No Dancing” introduces “a poacher on the land,” and in “Teenage Spaceship” and “Cold Blooded Old Times” (the latter a chilling tale of domestic violence set to a disturbingly upbeat melody) the emergence of baggage from the past signals an inability to cope with the present double claustrophobia of small town life and a serious relationship. Tracks eight and nine find solace in rootlessness; the last one wishes the old girlfriend well.

Knock Knock, Callahan perversely claims, is an album for teenagers. “Some of the themes are things I associate with teenage years–having big plans, thinking you can live like a gypsy,” he says. “There’s a lot about moving and traveling on the record. Most adults let that die.” Musically, though, it’s his most mature effort. Made in Chicago with Jim O’Rourke, who also coproduced Red Apple Falls, it complements Callahan’s limited but evocative singing with insinuating melodies–from the sullen “River Guard” to the ebullient “Hit the Ground Running”–and rich arrangements of acoustic and electric guitar, a string section, piano, drums, and occasionally a chorus of children. There are even a few strummy rockers worthy of the Velvet Underground.

But Callahan says the new sound might not be a keeper. “When I was rehearsing for a show a few months ago I realized how structured the new material was, and it didn’t feel good,” he explains. “Music should be free, and so some of the stuff I’m working on is much looser.”

Callahan is in the midst of assembling a band to tour in support of the new record this spring; so far it includes Guv’ner guitarist Charles Gansa and sometime Royal Trux drummer Mike Fellows. That group will play Chicago sometime in March. Friday night, however, Callahan will perform solo at the new Old Town School of Folk Music, where few if any of his indie-rock brethren have ever played–and where his fragile narratives might actually be audible for once, given the quiet respect the venue’s gorgeous acoustics tend to instill in its audiences. The show starts at 8; tickets cost $10 and are available in advance. Call the school at 773-728-6000 for more information.

Izzo Ain’t All That

Last Friday the Tribune and Sun-Times both practically anointed folk-rocker Diane Izzo Chicago’s next big thing–even the Reader’s own Monica Kendrick gave her a hard-won thumbs-up. Izzo’s new debut album, One, was produced by Brad Wood and released on the local Sugar Free label. But while the recording, as well as what I saw of her record-release party at Metro last week, shows vast improvement from a performance I suffered through just about a year ago, I’m still not convinced.

Izzo’s complete lack of humor you probably just have to love or hate, but she still walks the line between emotional intensity and mawkish melodrama in amateurishly sloppy fashion. The dark, literary songwriters she claims as influences–Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt–didn’t have conventionally good singing voices, but they worked within their limitations. Izzo curbs her excesses somewhat on the album, but her live act is still lousy with hard-to-take theatrical swoops, exaggeratedly husky intonation, cloying overenunciation, and a grating quaver. Used sparingly these tricks can give a tune a real emotional kick, but Izzo has confused them with style. The slippery melodic contours of her songs definitely show potential, but until she sheds the suffocating southern gothic cloak her talent won’t have room to grow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Callahan photo by Nicole Radja.