Bill Callahan last graced us as (Smog) in 2005 with the graceful and utterly beautiful country drenched A River Ain't Too Much to Love. A change was apparent when the Diamond Dancer EP appeared earlier in 2007 with its funky basslines and raggedy fiddle driving above a chorus of female backing vocalists. It was still him -- that voice is unmistakable -- but there was such a reliance on formal structure and texture, and on the notion of rhythm being placed right up front. It was almost funk and western. Callahan may have had a lo-fi aesthetic, and dug himself into it deeply, long before most had even toyed with it, but on Woke on a Whaleheart, he leaves most of that behind. The album starts innocuously enough with his rivers theme at the center "From Rivers to the Ocean." Folksy, languid, it's almost pastoral as a piano holds the middle of mix and is juxtaposed with lazily strummed acoustic guitars tracing the limpid Americana surface as dulcimers and a trio of fiddles ease in from the margins. The poetry in his lyrics create a love song that is timeless and full of displacement. But the very next track, "Footprints," proves that the single was no mistake, strange R&B tropes float into the basslines against the acoustic guitars strummed percussively and the ramped-up female backing vocals (all of them on this album are sung by Deani Pugh Flemmings), repeated lines, and Neil Michael Hagerty's production notions, with fuzzed out guitars and repetitive yet primitive Motown-styled string arrangements. "Diamond Dancer" is next, underscoring this new, more soulful aesthetic that doesn't abandon Callahan's deep love of old-style country music (as in country & western). The shimmeringly masculine and lyrically demented pop of "Sycamore" is another step out onto the ledge, underscoring that in many ways this is simultaneously the strangest and most accessible record we've had from the man yet. "The Wheel" sounds like it was recorded at a backyard singalong. Here is Neil Young meeting the dead spirit of Mississippi John Hurt as channeled by James Arness of Gunsmoke as carried through the voice of Callahan in the spirit of the Mekons. And so it goes until we enter the beautifully articulated clomp and clack ad Tennessee 2-step rhythm of "A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to Be a Man." Despite the appearance of that soul singing chorus, this is a 2-step country tune with all the trappings, moving from acoustic to electric, from shuffle to stomp and back until all that remains is rock & roll. Woke on a Whaleheart is a new phase for Bill Callahan; it employs all his strengths as a writer of lyrics and music and stretches the canvas of his colorful if sparsely arranged tapestry.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek