It's been more than 20 years since Bill Callahan first began releasing no-fi four-track home recordings under the name of Smog. Not only were the songs probably recorded in his bedroom, much of their material was sourced there, too, as he sang of love affairs gone bad and sketched out painfully intimate details that left no question about their autobiographical authenticity. Gradually, he moved further away from bare-bones recording and overtly confessional songwriting to embrace a polished sound and more mature, measured songwriting, and a few years ago he even stepped out from behind the veil of Smog to perform under his own name. These have been almost universally hailed as net gains. The early records still have their charm, but there's a reason Callahan rarely dips too far into his back catalog during live performances.
What may have been sacrificed in all this, however, is surprise. Dream River (Drag City) is Callahan's 15th full-length record, and it is a good one, but many of the songs seem interchangeable with material from his last few albums. Once again there are references to eagles, whales, rivers, Armageddon—things that appeared not only in his recent songs, but also in actual album titles.
The music is similarly familiar. Held over from 2011's Apocalypse are non-fussy arrangements executed by a core instrumentation of drums, electric piano, flute, guitar, and violin. The music does seem a little more involved here, likely due to the musicians who accompany Callahan this time around. Complementing returning guitarist Matt Kinsey's jazzy psychedelic tone, Thor Harris' congas, claves, shakers often have a Latin feel; Chojo Jacque's violin sounds just as often like a country fiddle; and Beth Galiger's flute turns out to be the perfect emotive foil for Callahan's singing, especially on "Spring" and on "The Summer," where it weaves in and around his vocals, Astral Weeks-style. Overall the band conveys a fairly laid-back, autumnal sound for most of the album, despite the fact that fall is the only season not name-checked in a song title here.
Tying it all together, as ever, is Callahan's voice, a smooth, deadpan baritone that at times borders on the dispassionate. Listen closely, though, and you might hear a powerful instrument that's especially fitting for his lyrical content: wry, keenly observational, slightly melancholic ruminations on existence. Callahan is one of those artists who has a fairly narrow range, but knows how to make the most of it. He seems to acknowledge this, in his own humorously skewed way, when he declares during the opening track, "The Sing," "I've got limitations like Marvin Gaye."
Bubbling underneath the casual delivery of stoic ruminations and dry humor at which Callahan excels ("The only words I said today are ‘beer' and ‘thank you'") is an existential twinge about what the future might hold—perhaps not surprising for a peripatetic single man approaching 50. Instead of drifting into a midlife crisis, though, Dream River finds him nudging closer to some sort of peace. "I have learned when things are beautiful to just keep on," Callahan repeats at the close of the album, and it sounds like a mission statement for his music and life, one that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.
Like Callahan, Richard Youngs is a 47-year-old musician who began releasing fairly odd, abrasive recordings in 1990. Unlike Callahan, though, Youngs seems as restless as ever. The British musician shows no signs of giving up the experimentation that is present throughout his work. His new record, Summer Though My Mind (Ba Da Bing!), is ostensibly Youngs' take on country music. Those familiar with Youngs' music, steeped as it is in minimalism and improvisation, know not to expect anything too beholden to the Nashville sound of any era, but the songs on Summer test the limits of what constitutes country music.
Possessing a sonorous tenor well-suited for the folk music of the British Isles—from which he often borrows—Youngs can't help himself from experimenting with a recording. It's as if he doesn't fully trust the way most musicians approach recording or has an aversion to what most people might think of as "pretty." Summer, for example, contains two songs that likely rank among his loveliest—I can't say for sure, as he has close to 200 recordings, counting collaborations, and I've heard only a small fraction—but whose presentation here might test many listeners' patience. "Spin Me Endless in the Universe" is a hypnotic 12-minute tune with longing lyrics built around a repetitive guitar figure, rendered here with out-of-sync double-tracked vocals and woozy slide guitar—think early Guided by Voices doing Gillian Welch's "I Dream a Highway." "Goodbye Oslo Rose" is a lovely, romantic farewell tune, but its chances for inclusion on soundtracks and mixtapes might have been blown by the atonal free harmonica blowing with which Youngs punctuates its choruses, not to mention the high-pitched EBow that permeates the track.
Part of Youngs' process has always been upsetting expectations or norms. How many more emotive-guy-with-guitar songs, no matter how lovely, how many more tasteful arrangements and coffee-shop ambient singer/songwriter songs does the world need, this album seems to ask. It's not always the easiest or most relaxing listen, but as Youngs continues to explore and interrogate song forms in the manner of few other musicians operating today, Summer Through My Mind stands as one of the more approachable entries into his world.