Sharps & Flats is a weekly music review roundup in Salon Magazine

By Joe Gross
January 20, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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"Bitterness is the lowest sin/A bitter man rots from within," sings Bill Callahan, the artist concurrently known as Smog. This is an almost unbelievable change of heart for the man who built his burning kingdom on bitterness itself. But Callahan seems to have turned an emotional corner on the excellent "Knock Knock," adding another well-written chapter in his complex, decade-long search for the perfect way to say, "I love you" -- or, more accurately, "Please love me."

Callahan began his semi-public life as the world's forgotten boy, bearing his heart by first burying it under layers of weird and grimy murk. His vision was dark, his songs darker and the sounds almost black; hip wimps saw him pining on their behalf, hip gals wanted to take care of him and the whole thing worked amazingly well. "Swen to the Sky" and "Forgotten Foundation" are stone classics of the man-alone-with-his-four-track song urge, but something had to give.


As the years went by and Callahan grew increasingly sure of his talent, he expanded from his bedroom into bona fide studios and contracted into the spare, clear acoustic form, ever more at ease with his ability to make his melancholy tangible. Working for the second time with Chicago producer Jim O'Rourke, Callahan goes over familiar ground (sad memories, emotional cages, the eternal mystery that is Woman) with the self-confidence of someone more at home in his own skin. The angst is still there, but O'Rourke's collaboration allows Callahan to make that angst hum when he wants to and clang when it needs to. "Knock Knock," like its immediate predecessor, "Red Apple Falls," shows nothing less than all the hallmarks of fully evolved adulthood (a big step for our hero).

And who knew he wrote anthems? The wonderful "Hit the Ground Running" drives some mellow Velvet Underground chords into the ground while a chorus of children (!) backs him up, singing, "I don't know where I'm going/All I know is I'll hit the ground running." He's still able to turn a brokenhearted phrase on a dime: "How can I stand/and laugh with the man/who redefined your body?" he deadpans in "Cold Blooded Old Times." But this time he's even able to look back at himself and laugh -- check out his half-smile on "Teenage Spaceman": "I was a teenage smog/sewn to the sky" he sings over hypnotic piano and strings. Callahan's still that forgotten boy at heart, but he knows that it's time to grow up a little, because there's that much more to write about.

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Peter Himmelman
HEAR IT | -->


BY JULENE SNYDER | There are days when it seems as if the entire music industry is intentionally flooding the aural landscape with utter crap. The records wash up in endless waves, threatening to drown us in a deluge of brain-dead ditties. Thankfully, it only takes one great record to lift you out of that muck, and singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman has happened by with a lifesaver. Himmelman writes songs with an assured easiness, the music fitting snugly around his graceful but often biting words. "Love Thinketh No Evil," his ninth album, is a meditation on love, loss and crushed expectations. At times it sounds as if Himmelman is channeling Elvis Costello in his glory days. The longing twang of "Checkmate" is a pensive weeper that finds him ruminating, "I need something more than this ... I need horses on the highway." The track "Million Miles Wide" has a catchy melody, but with a darker sentiment nestled in the lyrics: "Got to keep reminding myself not to sleep, there's so much to desire, but so little to keep."

Himmelman deserves credit for never playing the famous father-in-law card (Bob Dylan), and if he gets a bit sappy, a tad too earnest or cerebral, it's worth remembering that "Love Thinketh No Evil" is his first studio recording in five years. But if there's any justice, it will finally get him the mainstream recognition he deserves.

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-->BY BEN AUBURN | There are probably few XTC fans who aren't XTC fanatics. XTC inspire a kind of collector mentality, which may be the only thing that keeps them afloat, given how out of step they became after glam bedded new wave. Once Andy Partridge pulled the band off the road, they became progressively more baroque, delivering ever more precise pop albums that almost no one -- other than hardcore fans and rock critics -- showed much interest in. Of course, it's hard to build an audience when you let seven years pass between albums. But that's just what XTC did, effectively going on strike to force Virgin to release them from their contract. Once freed, they signed a U.S. distribution deal with indie label TVT and immediately began recording.

"Transistor Blast" is a kind of long-winded summation of their Virgin years. (For a short-winded one, try "Upsy-Daisy Assortment.") A collection of 15 years' worth of BBC studio recordings and live broadcasts, "Blast" is tireless, bursting with material that's just different enough from the album versions to perk up any XTC geek. The first two discs are from live-in-the-studio shows like John Peel's; the songs here are maddeningly sequenced (what, exactly, is wrong with chronological order?). Still, there's not a dud among them.


Discs 3 and 4 are concert broadcasts, one from their first record tour, "White Music," the other circa "Black Sea," when XTC was at the height of their power-pop prowess. "White Music"-era XTC were brash kids in love with angularity for angles' sake. Three records later, they would round off those corners without entirely smoothing them out, becoming a different kind of force -- the songs attacked the audience, instead of just annoying them. Despite the fact that about half of the Peel Sessions and all of Disc 4 were previously available as imports ("Drums and Wireless" and "BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert," respectively), "Transistor Blast" is of supreme archival value, something true fanatics can appreciate. They may not need to listen to it more than once, but they'll be real glad to have had the chance to hear it at all.

Joe Gross

Joe Gross is a Washington writer.


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