Bill Callahan (formerly known as Smog) plays beautiful slow ballads. He has a deep, calming, gorgeous voice. And his songs have a very traditional acoustic feel (even when he plays electric guitar). He is excellent at what he does.
But I’m afraid I just don’t really like his style all that much. I can absolutely appreciate why he is so well-regarded, because even as I’m listening to this Tiny Desk set I keep thinking how good everything he is doing is. Man, his voice is so interesting, and his music is so pretty (the strings add a very nice touch).
But I just can’t imagine myself ever choosing to listen to his album.
In fairness, a song on a mix tape would probably be awesome, and I did enjoy the three songs here: “Jim Cain,” “Rococo Zephyr” (great title, and my favorite of the three) and “Too Many Birds.” And I can imagine if I was ever on a mellow music kick that this would be where I’d start. So if you enjoy pretty, mellow music done incredibly well, Bill Callahan is definitely your guy. I feel like he is not as well-known as he ought to be, so check him out.
[READ: January 23, 2014] Eleanor Rigby
Completing three Douglas Coupland novels in two weeks may seem daunting, and it is especially so when the books are as dark as these have been. (With Coupland’s follow up book, JPod, he would go in a different direction and kind of break the darkness somewhat. And the new book which just came out seems like it is more humorous than dark). This book is perhaps the most insular of his career and perhaps the most insular book I’ve read. The title is puzzling (and is ultimately revealed), although Coupland says that he was inspired by wondering what happened to Eleanor Rigby after the (Beatles, duh) song was over.
So in this story, the main character is named Liz Dunn. Liz is a blank. She claims that she is so dull that if she were an extra in movies, she would be asked to leave the scene because she is too devoid of character to even be an extra. (Actually, Liz lays the self-pity on a little too thickly throughout the book–we got the point). Liz has a brother, who is an accomplished world traveller, and a sister who lives nearby and pops in to check on her once in a while. Both are married and have their lives together, unlike Liz who lives by herself in a room with no personality at all.
Liz’ sister is beautiful and got up to all kinds of trouble in school and William has always been successful, but Liz was…nothing. She didn’t like to do much. And she pretty much holds herself up as the antithesis of her sister. She watches movies all the time in her living room. And then she goes to sleep. She works at a well paying but dull job and she has saved a ton of money because she never spends it on anything.
As the story starts, she is getting wisdom teeth out. She takes a week off from work, but he boss (the Dwarf Whom I Report To) calls to say that someone will bring some work over to keep her busy. She has bought a bunch of tear jerker movies in hopes of riding out the painkillers with them. And then she gets a phone call. A man named Jeremy has her name on his medic alert bracelet and he is in the hospital.
Liz doesn’t know who he is, but then takes a guess and goes to see him in the hospital. And it turns out to be…her son.
Then we get the other story that Liz tells us. In high school, Liz when to Rome on a Latin trip. It was literally the only exciting thing she did. Her parents were shocked that she wanted to go. She even saved up all her own money to pay for it, so they couldn’t balk on that idea. Her father was concerned about her safety (those Europeans) but it was generally presumed that since no one looked at her here, who would bother her there. She was homesick the whole time and took lots of “homesickness pills” and also went drinking with the other kids. She doesn’t remember what happened, but she remembers partying on a roof (she is a fun drunk, although she never drinks anymore) and they met some Austrian students who were also in Rome to party. And she remembers nothing else.
When she got home she figured out that she was pregnant. But she didn’t tell anyone (she was a fat girl and her parents just thought she was getting fatter, because surely she;’d never be pregnant). She gave birth quickly and immediately gave the baby up for adoption.
And Jeremy tracked her down. He had been living with foster families (11 different ones at last count) and was considered trouble (the story is quite an indictment of the Canadian foster system). Then he was diagnosed with MS, which complicated things even more. Most of the foster families were religious and tried to push their beliefs on him. He was excited to track down his birth mother (he had friends in the system) and he spied on her for a few years before revealing himself in this way. He was in the hospital for a drug overdose at Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, but he isn’t really an addict.
The book is told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and my linear reconstruction is a bit antithetical to the nature of the story, but suffice it to say that Jeremy stays with Liz for a while. And she begins to enjoy having someone around. He is charming and funny. He even gets a job selling mattresses and discovers he is very good at it. And Liz finds that she is pretty good at being a caretaker.
Jeremy sees visions when he doesn’t take his medication. Liz likes the visions (I did not care for the visions section of the book as I thought it was too much, and a little overbearing) and is a little sad when he starts taking his meds. He also has a weird gift–he can sing (30 seconds at a time) backwards any song that he hears. If you play it in reverse on a tape recorder, it sounds perfect.
Jeremy proves to be a boon to Liz as her family starts coming around to meet the mysterious man, and she finds that she actually enjoys having someone spend the night. She even befriends (sort of) the Dwarf boss when he hears of Jeremy’s singing gift. However, the MS is quite serious and Jeremy is quickly getting worse.
The story is written seven years in the future from when Jeremy came into her life–which was the year of the Hale-Bopp comet (which features heavily but has no direct payoff). Seven years down the line, Liz is alone again. But on the night she began writing this, she had two strange things happen–a meteorite fell out of the sky and landed right in front of her. And, she received call from the German police to see if she recognized a man that they had in custody. When the policeman sends her a jpeg of the man’s photo she instantly recognizes him and thus begins the end of her story. She decides to go to Austria to confront her past and her future.
And that’s when Coupland has a little fun. When Liz lands in Europe, all hell breaks loose and the story goes a little nutty (in a pretty good way). Then she meets the policeman who contacted her and decides that Austria is not so bad. Things end in a few unexpected places.
Although this story was a little too mopey at times, there was a lot of humor and joy trying to break the facade of loneliness. And I ultimately enjoyed it quite a lot.