Every time the singer-songwriter Bill Callahan puts out a record, you want to listen lyrics-first. His words drip out so slowly that you could stone-carve an album’s worth of them without hitting pause. There’s also usually some evolution there. You want to know what new psychoses and vocabulary and levels of intent his characters have taken on: distanced and bratty; sentimental and sociopathic; dry and metaphysical; grateful and generous.
Too bad, because you might notice only secondarily that the music has become great. His singing over the last five years or so, since the end of the long period when he performed under the name Smog, is on a high level, getting higher. “Rough Travel for a Rare Thing” — a limited LP release that can also be download from the label’s site, dragcity.com — is a live recording from a 2007 gig in Melbourne, Australia, with a countryish band including three violinist and the drummer Lawrence Pike (using brushes). If, over the tension of those fiddles, Mr. Callahan reminds you of a country singer, it’ll be only of the best kind.
“Rough Travel” can put you in the mind of Merle Haggard’s best live records — “Okie From Muskogee” or “Amber Waves of Grain”: you’re not thinking in singer-songwriter terms, you’re not measuring verse by verse or song by song. Instead you’re hearing an overall group, overall sound, an hourlong unity. It’s a great nightclub set — about a quarter of it taken from his record “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love,” with a few older Smog songs (“Bathysphere,” “Our Anniversary”) — by a bar band that happens to have Bill Callahan in it.
His first records, 20 years ago, were ratty and cheaply made, antiprofessional; then his voice relaxed, becoming crumpled and murky, and he gathered an audience for his lyrics with stop-me-before-I-hurt-someone-again songs like “I Break Horses” and “I Was a Stranger.” But recently he’s become shrewd, strong, graceful, authoritative. It’s a big change, and all that remains of his beginnings here is his out-of-tune acoustic guitar, repeating a single fingerpicked pattern in the song “Bowery.” Somehow — probably because he’s taking his time, controlling the performance — the tuning problem doesn’t become an irritant.
If you took Mr. Haggard’s downward baritone-voice glissandos and chopped them into three or four distinct notes, three heavy landings instead of one easy slide, you’d get the weary, wonderful thing that Mr. Callahan does in “Rough Travel.” He won’t lose his downhearted singing persona: he does his artful phrasing, lightening his voice to add a little slow-motion melisma, sighing, making every “t” sound like a “d,” from under a great weight. Meanwhile the band’s just cruising, plumping out in volume and intensity through each song. Taking up the lonely narratives from “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” — “Rock Bottom Riser,” “The Well,” “Let Me See the Colts,” a version of the folk song “In the Pines” — Mr. Callahan makes them even lonelier, in a room full of people having a good time