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 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
Bill Callahan
Woke On A Whaleheart
Drag City

Rating: 9/10 ?

April 24, 2007
There is a point at the beginning of the track "Sycamore" where Bill Callahan's sweet honey voice slowly pours out the line, "There's sap in the trees if ya tap em/ There's blood on the seas if you map em." Callahan's diction is so rich and precise that, the first time I heard the song, I half expected to see maple syrup bubbling out of my speakers. That joyful moment of living, breathing beauty is really what seems to have cleaved Bill Callahan from his former alter ego and sometimes parenthesized nom de plume, Smog. Whereas in Smog he was often finding the saddest or even the worst kinds of things to sing about, under his own name Callahan rejects that kind of negativity and smug cynicism for a sort of revelatory celebration. Woke On A Whaleheart seems to be a chronicle of the happier life Callahan is now accustomed to living in his new home in the music hotbed of Austin, Texas, with his gorgeous, elfin girlfriend Joanna Newsom.

In his early work as Smog, the songs in Callahan's cannon were dark and often deeply sarcastic tunes filled with infidelity and obsession. There remains an ever present wit in his work that keeps things from getting too serious, but songs like "Bathysphere" and "To Be of Use" are unavoidably dark and heartbreaking. Later Callahan pondered the possibility that he might be little more than an idea and started going by (Smog) - parenthetically constrained and still nothing more than an incorporeal entity. After dropping the parentheses, Smog's last album, A River Ain't Too Much To Love, chronicled Callahan's move from Chicago to Austin and the strange feeling that one gets when moving anywhere - but especially when moving to Texas. The songs on A River were lonely and nostalgic, but also oddly positive and seemed to signal yet another shift in Callahan's outlook.

With Woke On A Whaleheart, not only is Smog a fully realized person, but the songs are also more fleshed out and complete than those on A River. Woke On A Whaleheart exudes both a soulful Stax-like production and a country twang resembling only the most classic works of bands like Steely Dan, a line that can be clearly drawn from the album's first single, "Diamond Dancer". There is even a call and response song called "The Wheel" that finds Callahan talking the chorus, which his gospel backing singers, in turn, wail back to him. "The Wheel" also features a twangy guitar and upright bass that join to propel the song along, at a steady one-two pace, atop a laughing audience who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.

All this discussion of happiness and laughter could lead some to misinterpret Woke On A Whaleheart, but don't get the wrong idea - Bill Callahan has not gone soft. He is still pissed about the cruelty of society and rails against people who "are a sickness on this land" ("Day"). Callahan still enjoys poking fun at social stigmas, too. The heavily Johnny Cash influenced "A Man Needs a Woman Or A Man To Be A Man" seems to directly confront the ironies of modern life in the Longhorn State and the conflicted nature inherent in the rugged cowboy image that many Texans exude.

Woke On A Whaleheart is a pleasure, and aside from the intro to the song "Footprints," every moment on this record is immensely listenable. Let's hope Bill Callahan continues this more open and positive trend; by taking a risk and exposing himself, he has actually made one of his best records to date. Maybe it's the Austin sun, maybe Joanna Newsom, or maybe it's the sap in the trees. Whatever it is, it works.

Reviewed by Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LASís editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other reviews by Jon Burke



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