- Dress sexy: Bill Callahan
Live, his demeanor can be equally disarming. Several years ago, while still performing under the name Smog, Callahan scowled through his set, even as he delivered his droll lyrics. Over 13 albums, he has been capable of wit ("Dress Sexy at My Funeral" an instruction to his widow, which climaxes with some white-soul falsetto) and heartbreak ("Truth Serum" a beautifully heartbreaking duet with Sarabeth Tucek). One album even used a children's chorus in a way that bolstered the music.
Callahan's songs are typically pretty simple, with a couple of chords strummed into infinity as his unaffected baritone casually strolls along on top. Apocalypse, the third album he's released under his own name, might be the starkest one yet. While Smog's late-'90s/early-'00s catalog usually featured a rock band driving the songs, Callahan is keeping it even simpler with a quartet, occasionally adding piano, flute and fiddle. The extra instruments give the music something of a '70s country twang that somehow fits with the anthemic, standard chord progressions.
Album-closer "One Fine Morning" characterizes this best: For eight minutes, Callahan strums the same kind of two-chord riff that U2 used all over The Joshua Tree. As in an earlier song, he incorporates the album title into the lyrics, which sum up the topics he's sung about throughout the album. His final words: "DC 450," the album's catalog number. Deep down inside, Bill Callahan probably had a good laugh.