Bill Callahan — ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest’
THE GOOD: Singer-songwriter Bill Callahan releases his eighth post-Smog album.
THE BAD: Like any Callahan project, you have to dive into “Shepherd” with the right frame of mind. Callahan’s stuff is very low-key and mostly down-tempo.
THE NITTY GRITTY: His baritone voice is front and center and, for once, isn’t singing about distant dreams, hazy memories or fictional characters. This is Callahan, happily married with a young son, telling us about days filled with love and contentment. It’s actually a nice fit for a man in his early 50s. And even though these songs are a far cry from the more experimental days of Smog, they are no less genuine.
Musically, the backdrops are calm and rustic. Callahan’s acoustic guitar is accompanied by upright bass, piano, drums (sometimes) and the occasional pedal steel. You can picture the hardwood floors and big front windows of some log cabin — a cozy home as opposed to weekend getaway spot. So come on in…
BUY IT?: Yes. By the way, Scranton gets name-dropped during “Young Icarus.”
Bad Books — ‘3’
THE GOOD: Modern folk outfit Bad Books returns after a long hiatus with its third.
THE BAD: Not really.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Formed about a decade ago, Bad Books initially was a side project of indie folk artist Kevin Devine and members of Manchester Orchestra. After releasing two albums in quick succession, the band called it quits (for a little while, anyway). “3” was recorded in on-again, off-again fashion over the past couple of years, with the guys shedding many of the rock elements found on past releases. This is a mostly acoustic and much more intimate affair. It’s also a collection where Bad Books finally fully develops, sounding less like a side gig and more like the main focus in the musical lives of all involved.
Some tracks are sunny and hopeful (“I Love You, I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You”). Others visit some very dark places (the homophobic horror tale “Neighborhood”). Either way, Devine and company bring an unwavering honesty to every moment.
BUY IT?: Sure.
Purple Mountains — ‘Purple Mountains’
THE GOOD: Ex-Silver Jews frontman and singer/songwriter David Berman returns with his first new musical project in a decade.
THE BAD: More like the “tragic.” “Purple Mountains” could have been a triumphant new beginning. Instead, it’s a sad ending. Just days before the band was supposed to go out on tour, Berman took his life at 52.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Now moments like “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Nights That Won’t Happen” are eerily prophetic. If you can separate the songs from the real-life tragedy, though, you soon realize this is one of the most focused and accomplished sets Berman ever released.
Despite the restlessness, regret and loss within much of the lyrics, tracks such as “Darkness and Cold,” “Margaritas at the Mall” and “Storyline Fever” have a lighter side, with melodies and arrangements that shine as prime examples of spot-on indie pop/rock. While showing us his dark side, Berman could actually make us feel just a little better. He will be missed.
BUY IT?: Absolutely.