Bill Callahan, "Dream River" (Drag City)
Within three seconds of Callahan's new album, the sound of a gorgeous pedal steel seeps into the opening song. It wails like a wordless cry, setting the sumptuous tone of Callahan's fourth studio album under his own name since dispensing with the moniker Smog.
With eight songs that unfurl to 40 minutes, it's impeccably crafted and plays off a mercurial tension between Callahan's voice — a parched yet resonant baritone — and the lush arrangements that envelop it. These songs have soul, drive; even when they spiral into psychedelic visions (dig those flute interludes all over the record), Callahan sounds like an assured storyteller. He's conjuring the same spare, desert-folk beauty he introduced on recent releases "Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle" (2009) and "Apocalypse" (2011).
But he's also getting closer to capturing the direct simplicity of great songwriters like Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury, both of whom are influences. "The only words I said today are 'beer' and 'thank you,' " Callahan deadpans on "The Sing." So simple but so telling.
Callahan performs Oct. 13 at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
James Reed, Boston Globe
Justin Moore, "Off the Beaten Path" (Valory)
Stand at attention for the recitation of names of our new country music heroes. "You're a little bit of J. Lo, a little bit of Kim Kardashian," Moore sings on "I'd Want It to Be Yours. He is inspired by what bubbles out of Daisy Dukes shorts: "Looks like two little pigs in a tow sack/I'm telling you right now, baby, you got back."
So Moore is a bad boy? Someone who not only has brought the genre low, but who wants to poison it with pop culture and hip-hop references?
He is far more wily than that. "Off the Beaten Path" is his third strong album, each of which engages in a bait and switch: cloaking old-school values with new-school references. He is in no way a dissenter, just someone who understands that old forms can stand even stronger with injections of new ideas. Without the vintage quaver in Moore's voice or the thickness of the guitars in his arrangements, these songs would have other meanings. But Moore is solid in his convictions: that country music of the 1970s is worth preserving, and that the true modern spirit of that sound is mindful of the rest of the world.
He's also capable of nonideological beauty: "Old Habits," a duet with Miranda Lambert with echoes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, or "That's How I Know You Love Me," about the taming of a difficult man written with elegance and complexity. And he's capable of playing it safe, too, with "This Kind of Town" or "Country Radio," which embrace old tropes without improving them.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times