The man known to many as Smog has a recording career spanning seventeen years, and new long-player Woke on a Whaleheart, sees Callahan release his first record under his own name. However, even after shedding his alias, the first Callahan record still sits nicely among his other albums.
After the considerable critical acclaim of last album A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Callahan’s new album was always going have something seriously impressive to live up to. While River saw an almost completely stripped back approach to instrumentation, the new record returns to the same sorts of warm electric guitar and piano lead tunes of his older records. One of the major criticisms of Callahan’s music is that it is too depressing, however, Woke on a Whaleheart is a relatively upbeat number by Smog standards.
Songs like ‘The Wheel’, ‘Day’ and opener ‘From Rivers to the Ocean’ meander (in a good way) along in almost cheerful, shuffling, country rhythms.
The main feature of the album is Callahan’s characteristic vocals. His deep Southern drawl is a powerful narrator when combined with his evocative lyrics. The naturalistic themes of the last album re-emerge in ‘Sycamore,’ one of the live highlights in Callahan’s Wellington show with girlfriend, and current media darling Joanna Newsom. The winding tremolo lead guitar weaves a beautiful arpeggio as Callahan observes ‘the bottle gives birth to the cup/and you won’t get hurt if you just keep your hands up/and stand tall/like Sycamore.’ First single ‘Diamond Dancer’ is also one of the stronger tracks, with a bass-heavy, steady drum rhythm accompanied by spooky fiddles and muted distorted guitar lines.
Ultimately the album does not approach the quality of River but nonetheless provides a worthy addition to an impressive back catalogue.