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Hatchie - Keepsake Music Album Reviews

Hatchie's platonic ideal of dream pop goes down a bit too easy, like another rewatch of a John Hughes film.
Shoegaze offers the perfect place to bury bad feelings; there is a storied legacy of groups like Slowdive and Mazzy Star sinking Tory conservatism and post-breakup remorse into hazy swirls of distortion. Harriette Pilbeam uses Hatchie as an outlet for more quotidian concerns — friendships, romances, nostalgia. On her EP Sugar & Spice, Pilbeam offered glassy guitars, long sighs, and some bright choruses, but there was nothing darker beneath the surface to reward your close, ongoing attention. She promised a broader palette for her debut, but Keepsake feels hemmed in by the same lack of depth. Pillbeam's platonic ideal of dream pop goes down a bit too easy, like another rewatch of a John Hughes film.

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Bill Callahan - Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest Music Album Reviews

A peerless storyteller gazes deep into domestic life and offers a long, sun-warmed double album that is a highlight of his career.

Listening to a Bill Callahan album used to mean contemplating solitude. His music wasn’t about aloneness, but the man making it sounded supremely alone. His baritone voice rumbled near the bottom of his arrangements, and it sounded so serious, so grave: If you weren’t paying attention to what he was saying, you might have conscripted his music into all sorts of cliched lone-wolf expeditions: staring at mountains, nighttime highway drives, reading Hemingway on a fishing trip.


On his long, sun-warmed new album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Callahan doesn’t sound alone. He sounds surrounded. For one thing, the woman he loves isn’t an absence haunting his nightmares, as she was on 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle; she’s in his house. His son, their son, is in the next room. The sights, sounds, smells, and textures of domesticity are everywhere: “Sesame Street” is on the television in his living room, and in the bedroom, his wife is laying out a towel on the bed so that they can start “making love.” Does Callahan underline exactly what he means by this scenario? He does: “It’s late,” his wife tells him. “I’m bleeding.” There you have it: The first Bill Callahan album ever to mention period sex.

All of this might sound disarming or odd, but what is tremendously rewarding about Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is how thoughtfully Callahan writes about his happiness, and how much his happiness proves to be enlightening for us. Happiness is a difficult emotion to plumb for wisdom, after all—we tend to reserve intensity of observation for the feelings we are trying desperately get rid of, hoping that if we study them hard enough we might never have them again. Happiness? Well, happiness we just try to enjoy, praying we don’t fuck it up.

And yet Callahan seems unafraid of fucking up his contentment by thinking too hard about it. Somehow, Callahan with a mile-wide grin on his face has as much to say about the universe as the grave, stoic guy he used to be. His career—from his early lo-fi instrumental experiments as Smog, to his slow evolution into the singer-songwriter he is today— is too rich and storied for easy superlatives, but Shepherd feels like his most something album ever—his warmest, his most generous, possibly his most profound. It is his longest, for sure, lounging comfortably across four sides of vinyl, none of it wasted. It is a high note, fond and deep and sustained.

The sound is looser than is typical on Bill Callahan records. The arrangements are full of sensual touches, like the upright bass that wriggles with pleasure in response to Callahan’s announcement, “You can call me anything just as long as I can sing” on "Call Me Anything.” There is a beery honky-tonk lilt to “Black Dog on the Beach,” a single muted pedal steel guitar crying in the background. On “Confederate Jasmine,” he compares the scent of the flowers to “a soft note from a dented horn”—a precise and lovely image, and also a perfect evocation of the album’s sound and feel.

It is a livelier record than his last two, full of quiet noodling in the edges. “What Comes After Certainty” foregrounds two acoustic guitars, one fingerpicking and the other doubling up an octave higher, traveling up the neck to find little improvised-sounding turnarounds. The two guitars are not tightly in sync, and some of those little solos sound messy, like the player chimed before they figured out what to play, but the smudged notes add a texture of rumpled joy to the songs. His records tend to sound monastic and spare, but this is a living-room record, made in and around a roomful of clutter.

Every note, no matter how spontaneous-sounding responds lightly and immediately to Callahan’s voice, which remains the central character. “I never thought I’d make it this far/Little old house, recent-model car/And I’ve got the woman of my dreams,” he sings on “Certainty,” and as if shuddering a little at the unlikeliness of all this, the song dropping briefly into two minor chords at the words “dreams.” Contentment, after all, can feel terrifyingly fragile, particularly when you are in the full flush of it. “True love is not magic, it is certainty/And what comes after certainty?” he wonders. He does not answer.

Callahan writes about his contentment in the same vivid, tender, and elegiac way that Leonard Cohen did. Any sunburned grinning idiot in a hammock could admonish you to “live in the present”—irritating, if technically good advice. But Callahan examines that same wisdom more closely and retrieves this: “Well, the past has always lied to me/The past has never given me anything but the blues,” he sings on “Young Icarus.”

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Writing classes call this work “defamiliarization” but it’s not really a technique to teach as much as a habit of mind, a peculiar way of seeing the world: “We are flies on a mule, and we’re good at what we do,” he concludes on “747.” The song is one of a handful of masterpieces on Shepherd. On it, Callahan is on a plane, writing about the thoughts that slide into and out of his head as the plane ascends to 30,000 feet. Mark Kozelek, another would-be poet of the mundane, might stare into his vacuum-sealed airplane dinner and wonder about the last time he was served pasta primavera, and which pro wrestler had just died; Callahan wonders about the border between birth and death, about the clouds he’s flying through and the light seen by the born and the dying: “I woke up on a 747 flying through some stock footage of heaven,” he begins, before giving us this: “There was blood when you were born and the blood was wiped from your eyes/This must be the light you saw that just left you screaming/And this must be the light you saw before our eyes could disguise true meaning/And this must be the light you saw just as you were leaving.”

Callahan isn’t the first writer to identify, in the deep and elemental stillness of the soul that comes with true contentment, a note of death. On the album’s fourth and final side, death looms over everything, without darkening the landscape: “Death is beautiful,” Callahan tells us. “We say goodbye to many friends who have no equal.” One of the last songs is a cover of the Carter Family’s “Lonesome Valley,” a song essentially about facing the terror of your ending alone. But Callahan tweaks the words so that the verses are about all his loved ones—not only does he have to “walk the lonesome valley” by himself, but so do his mother and his father. We all share this passage, he realizes. A cognitive dissonance, maybe, more than a paradox, a thought to be savored more than a puzzle to be solved. As Callahan adds new verses, killing new family members each time—“My sister’s got to walk that lonesome valley”—the song swells behind him. Women’s voices appear behind his, as does a piano and a few different guitars, all of them wandering into what feels like a curtain-call. Perhaps in this moment, he suggests, we won’t be nearly as alone as we imagine.


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