It is not totally correct to call Woke On A Whaleheart a debut album, although I guess it works in the sense that this is the first for Bill Callahan without using the moniker Smog. He has dropped Smog as a name, but don't expect a drastic change musically on his latest offering.
Pigeonholing Callahan's style of songwriting is far from easy. While many may lump him in alt-country or folk, I find the only description that fits is that of being timeless. He is able to sound current yet the simple instrumentation and warm production sounds like it could have been recorded decades ago. This is definitely a product of whatever flows in the water of Austin, TX.
His baritone voice is able to produce such deep emotion with very little effort, a task that can only be accomplished by such heartfelt songwriting. Our journey on Whaleheart begins with "From The Rivers To The Oceans," a song with chilling brief moments of piano-led highs and acoustic guitar lows. It is spacious, taking its time (well over six-minutes), but it never drags. With the bits of strings and live production values, it is one hell of an opener.
Callahan does occasionally pick up the tempo now and then, even adding in some catchy moments such as on "Diamond Dancer." Fans of artists ranging from Midlake to Neil Young will find themselves loving this one. This takes us to "Sycamore," pairing his melancholic deep vocals with those of Deani Pugh-Flemmings from the Olivet Baptist Church. The contrast between the two tones of voices is simply amazing.
This isn't the only moment that gospel touches the soul of Woke On A Whaleheart, as the church adds bits to several of its tracks. In fact, it brings slight comparisons to Johnny Cash at times, especially on the album's closer, "A Man Needs A Woman or A Man To Be A Man." The country side of his music takes a big step forward on this one, helping end this fantastically moody album on a slightly higher note.
Although this isn't an easy listen, it is a perfect album for a warm summer night on a back porch in Texas. Grab yourself a good glass of whiskey, find the nearest rocking chair and give this one your undivided attention. Callahan offers up a great balance of happiness and gloom, and plenty of places in between.