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Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle  

By Bill Callahan. Drag City.

Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is singer/songwriter Bill Callahan's sophomore release under his own name. His near-20-year nom de plume of "Smog" or "(Smog)" has plainly cleared, leaving Callahan ample breathing room for space, orchestration and clarity to his songs. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle may be his finest release to date.

On the new release, Callahan worked with former Shearwater member (and Okkervil River producer) Brian Beattie to create a lush sound, including a string section of Polyphonic Spree alumni, to provide a near perfect ironic foil for his deadpan, baritone delivery. The orchestration moves from avant-garde to ominous to schmaltz -- teetering, at times, but never spilling over into the extreme. In many aspects, Bill Callahan serves up an update on Lee Hazelwood's recordings. That's hardly a bad thing.

Instead of "Some Velvet Morning" or "Run Boy Run," Callahan offers "Jim Cain," an ode to the hardboiled writer James M. Cain. "I used to be darker," Callahan sings, "Then I got lighter. Then I got dark again ..." Well, yes and no. He's no less elusive or deceptive. The hazy front cover image of horses grazing near a forest's edge doesn't quite depict the album's contents.

"My Friend" begins with a British pastoral guitar line, with the thumping of drums slowly building behind: "I looked all around. And it was not written down. So I'll tell you now. I will always love you ..." Drummer Luis Martinez snaps into the snare when Callahan dryly breathes, "My friend." There's a twin sensation -- the line is executed in a chilling, cold delivery, over a driving beat.

Along with Beattie (guitar, keyboards, percussion), the aforementioned Martinez (drums) and guitarist Jaime Zuvera from the Austin psychedelic garage band Horse + Donkey, and bassist Bobby Weaver (Michah P. Hinson), fill out an extraordinary accompaniment to the bemused, ironic, and sometimes distant narrators of Callahan's songs. The arrangements fit the timbre, the tone and the mood of each song, without being audacious or simply clever. The attention that Beattie and Callahan bring to the sound of each instrument and how they blend with the vocals and lyrics make this recording astounding and fresh.

"Faith/Void" concludes the album with a 10-minute paean to atheism. "It's time," he sings, stretching the line, "to put God away." The line repeats over an arrangement that borders on pure syrup in one instance, while there are great moments of beauty in another. The mantra is sung with a gentle, clergyman's patience. This is Callahan's brilliance. His irony is subtle, like arsenic slipped into a cup of tea. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle won't leave you dead, but it may leave you floored.

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Mark Shikuma

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