Sometimes, with Bill Callahan, the focus on his records is so unwaveringly on his lyrics, it is tempting to treat them as recited poetry rather than actual music. On an old Smog record like “The Doctor Came At Dawn”, say, the music seems barely there; just a little shading to point up the melodic undertow of a baritone that often wanders closer to speech than song.
And while his records have been generally warmer-sounding, more discreetly ornate, since the switch from Smog to his given name, Callahan still seems like an unlikely artist to entertain a dub makeover. Here, though, is “Have Fun With God”, a complete version of the eight tracks on last year’s masterful “Dream River” – my favourite album of 2013, that I wrote about in this blog.
There’s a small trend emerging of notionally rootsy/singer-songwriterish American artists making dub excursions, or adding production tricks learned from King Tubby and Lee Perry records to the sort of songs that seem built out of a quite different tradition – without, I should say, sounding either tokenistic, gimmicky or as ungainly hybrids. A couple of examples I thought of this morning: Hiss Golden Messenger’s reworking of “Jesus Shot Me In The Head”, and the version of Howard Ivans’ “Pillows” prepared by Trey Pollard and Matthew E White.
White’s notes on that Soundcloud page are eloquent and especially salient, I think: “At Spacebomb we are dedicated to [the dub] process and to the continuous redefinition of what a record can be. We want to see our recordings work in many different ways, in many different frames, maximizing what we do in the studio and demonstrating that a record can be malleable, bendable, and changeable. We are dedicated to improvisation not only as musicians, but as engineers, performers, producers, and creatures of imagination, and hope that our dubs stand as lively, fresh and courageous interactions…
“‘Pillows (Version)’ was given life on November 5th in the Spacebomb attic. We took our work on Howard Ivans’ satin-lined R&B and sent it through a kaleidoscope of delay and reverb, sailing it through the Spacebomb void, through circuits, tubes, tape and out the other side. Improvising, reimagining, and playing with electricity until we discovered something–recognizable and related, but sincerely new.
“Spacebomb holds tight to the idea that Dub is not a genre, but a way of interacting with recorded music–a process that becomes philosophy.”
Callahan, meanwhile, chose to preview the release of “Dream River” by leaking the dub version of “Javelin Unlanding”, “Expanding Dub”, and at the time I wrote, “After 20 years of discreet obfuscations and evasions, “Expanding Dub” seemed to signal a new strategy in Callahan’s ongoing project to confound – and, in the process, delight – his loyal audience; a substantially more playful strategy, at that. Reggae does not feature noticeably on the finished version of “Dream River”, but the experiment does serve to draw attention to the enduring spaciousness of Callahan’s music; to the sense that the most significant details in his songs are unspoken, hidden in the interstices between his lines.”
This last point is hammered home very hard when you hear the project in its entirety. Brian Beattie, who mixed “Dream River” and handled the remixes for “Have Fun With God”, hasn’t wandered too far from the original: the eight songs run in the same order, and are recast not as reggae, exactly, but as reverb-heavy and mostly instrumental pieces that point up the rich musical subtleties that initially underpinned Callahan’s vocals. A lot of things I’ve read about Callahan’s recent live show – arriving here in the UK in a matter of weeks, excitingly – conscientiously draw attention to the excellence of his band (ie this cover of “White Light/White Heat”, a regular show opener, which also reminds me I need to plug our Lou Reed Ultimate Music Guide special which goes on sale next week…).
“Have Fun With God” is full of echo deck trickery, enhanced space, vaguely disorienting drop-outs, but it also pushes the textural detailing of the “Dream River” recordings to the fore: the willowy flute and violin cycles, Matt Kinsey’s always thoughtful and inventive guitar-playing. The mood of that original album remains, too, and is revealed as ideal for the washed-out treatments: a kind of contemplative mellowness that plays on the relaxing rather than unnerving possibilities of dub, even when Callahan’s voice drifts back into the mix to proclaim, more ominous than ever, “You look like worldwide Armageddon.”
More of Callahan’s baritone than you might expect makes the cut, so much so that in some passages – in “Small Dub” (“Small Plane”), for instance – Beattie’s work feels more like an alternate version rather than a broadly instrumental dub one. It’s hard to imagine many people will prefer these takes to the “Dream River” ones, though there’s a lot of charm and wit to be found, not least from Callahan’s booming cameos, where the heavy reverb plays up his already stentorian tones into something thematically akin to the Voice Of a God. Most profound, perhaps, is the point in the opening remake of “The Sing”, “Thank Dub”, when his command for “BEER!” becomes, uncannily, hilariously portentous.
Anyhow, a new reissue of The Upsetters’ “The Good, The Bad And The Upsetters” turned up in the post this morning. I really should play that now, shouldn’t I?
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