Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. For today’s instalment, we’re lending our ears to the latest release from one of modern music’s most beloved writers: Bill Callahan.
When ‘Gold Record’ was announced back in June of this year, those long-term acolytes of its author could well have been forgiven had they betrayed some incredulity at the news. After all, word of a new studio album from the long-ago-canonised indie-folk hero Bill Callahan came almost exactly a year to the day after the release of 2019’s ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’, his comeback of sorts after a half-decade hiatus. That he would so swiftly deliver his follow-up after so protracted a silence was perhaps something of a surprise but, then again, its predecessor had often felt as though it were the produce of a whittling-down process from a presumably enormous stockpile of songs. Where ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’ had offered twenty songs and lingered for over an hour, ‘Gold Record’ is a more conservative forty minutes in length and boasts only half the number of songs possessed by its predecessor. It’s certainly difficult to shake the suspicion that much of ‘Gold Record’ comprises material left over from its predecessor, then, but ultimately it really doesn’t matter much either way; what’s important is that this stands as another distinguished, quietly humorous outing from a figure who long ago found his artistic niche and has done little to move himself from it in recent years. That isn’t to say there are no surprises on ‘Gold Record’ – the reappearance of ‘Let’s Move To The Country’, the opening cut of his 1999’s evergreen indie-favourite ‘Knock Knock’ makes for an unexpected yet deeply touching highlight – but long-term fans will certainly find the smooth timbre of his voice and the quiet humanity of his delivery to be a reassuring familiarity in these strange times.
Callahan has called Chicagoan institution Drag City his artistic home for the entirety of his career, which means that it’s as good as given that ‘Gold Record’ appears on shelves courtesy of that label. That, of course, is only a positive – not least for the fact that Drag City boast an expertise in releasing LPs born of time and plentiful experience. They were one of few labels to support the format throughout its ’90s wilderness years and they’ve established themselves as one of the few labels keen enough on supporting wax to keep their more popular titles perpetually in-print on the format. Being one of their most popular acts, Callahan’s latest is almost certainly bound to follow suit and remain available for the foreseeable future – and a good thing too, as it’s another excellent pressing from a label seemingly incapable of anything less. As per usual with Drag City releases, the record itself is an ostensibly no-frills slab of black wax; there are no fancy-shmancy coloured LP variants here, just stout quality control and solid credentials. Speaking of credentials, they’re as impressive as always: the record has been pressed by America’s RTI, one of the country’s most reliably commendable plants and a common choice for audiophile-grade labels the country-over. The mastering, too, leaves little to be desired; the album’s rich acoustic guitars chime with all the precession you could ask of them and, similarly, Callahan’s half-crooned, half-murmured musings fill the soundscape with a convincing warmth. As is often the case with records pressed by RTI, there are a few light surface scuffs on the LP’s surfaces but these are simply aesthetic imperfections which do nothing to limit the disc’s excellent playback. On the plus side, the record is a full-weight, hefty slab of wax and our copy sits flat upon the platter during playback. Sound is very solid throughout, with a low noise floor and only a few sporadic, minor instances of background noise which are neither significant nor frequent enough to distract from the immersive sonics.
Drag City’s preferred mode of physical presentation tends to vary from title to title. On some of their lower-profile releases, they’ll employ a functional yet hardly remarkable weight of cardstock to produce their sleeves from; yet here in the case of a new LP from one of their most popular acts they’ve pulled out the stoppers to produce a very attractive package. The cover itself is fairly standard in design; it’s a normal-width non-gatefold sleeve and therefore not noteworthy in itself but the cardstock with which they’ve produced it most certainly is. ‘Gold Record’ is presented is a tip-on sleeve of superb quality; such covers are something we always praise highly on the occasions when we have a chance to write about them here at Vinyl Corner and our appreciation of them is as keen now as it’s ever been. Fashioned after the style of covers frequently produced in the US during the ’50s and ’60s, such sleeves quite simply have an air of quality about them that other forms lack and, finished – as this particular release is – with a glossy sheen, it looks even better than usual. As is standard practice for Drag City, the barcode has thankfully been placed as a sticker upon the shrinkwrap, rather than being printed directly onto the cover and the package is rounded off with a printed paper inner sleeve offering lyrics to the full album. Such an inclusion is obviously a welcome one – especially considering the extent to which Callahan’s reputation is built upon his abilities as a writer – but it is worth noting that the inner sleeve offers little protection for the record inside, so we’d advise caution when removing the record from it.
The Callahan faithful will doubtless be thrilled with ‘Gold Record’ – it’s another rock-solid, dependable entry into a generally consistent catalogue of deep humour and insight. Drag City have, for their part, produced another fantastic vinyl release which looks as great as it sounds.
Enjoyed this feature? We’re always looking for further albums to highlight on Vinyl Corner – and if you have a vinyl release that you’d love to see written about here, please get in touch at email@example.com – it would be great to hear from you!