Who's There?

Bill Callahan's voice is changing. It's not just that he's stopped singing through a coffee can, or whatever he used in the prepubescent lo-fi days of his musical project, Smog. It's as if all those dives into his own bathysphere of miserablism have plumbed depths that resound in rounder, mellower baritones with each recording. On the latest, Knock Knock(Drag City), Callahan's deep tannic twang now recalls, bizarrely enough, Kenny Rogers— though we may wait forever for that gentleman purveyor of chicken dinners and Internet casinos to go public with a sentiment as Smoggy as "I was a teenage spaceship."

We also may wait forever for Callahan to toss promotional glow-in-the-dark Frisbees between songs as part of his live act— something Kenny used to do. A pity, since Smog shows could use a little showbiz oomph, and the grade-schoolers who sing so sprightly on two of the new album's tracks apparently couldn't make it on tour. On Knock Knock, Callahan's fractured fairy tales finally breathe, his booming drawl set free by robust, if uncredited, production and playing by several tenured fellows of the Drag City College of American Studies. But at the earlier of two SRO shows at Tonic last Sunday night, a solo Callahan slunk back into the high-school bedroom of yore. Fumbling with a muddy, just-out-of-tune guitar, he sang soulfully but with a ticlike recurring grimace as his sole facial expression. Nothing about his deadpan performance indicated that he knew he was onstage, which made everyone else so much more aware of the fact: hypnotized, the audience followed him as they would a daydreamer about to walk into the path of a car.

The meandering set mixed new material with closet classics like "All Your Woman Things" (a Swiftian account of being left stranded in a sea of brassieres that is probably best delivered without affect). Knock Knock's "Held" lacked its rousing "We Are the Champions" stomp-and-clap track live, yet it built up a VU-worthy drone. When Callahan sang, "I am moving away, moving away," he backed away from the mike to demonstrate; some people tittered appreciatively at the pun. Me, I was relieved to see that his legs still worked.

It's odd that Callahan's live self is so fixed, since his recorded one is so mutable. But they're not so different. Both frame the suicidal self-obsessive's question— what would the world be like if I wasn't here?— as the philosophical joke that it is. And sometimes the joke is even funny. — Sally Jacob


Losing My Religion

"Anyone out there want a religious experience?" shouted mega pop idol Enrique Iglesias as he sped up and down the Madison Square Garden runway. Iglesias was climaxing his two-hour Lat-teen-a lustfest by completing his transformation into the God of Romance with yet another midtempo shlock-bomb, "Experiencia Religiosa." Moments earlier, we had witnessed the Michael Jackson dangling-from-a-flying-harness ritual, where Iglesias supplicated a lover to "Stop playing with my heart" as Garden security pulled a posse of beguiled Dominicanas, Mexicanas, and Colombianas from his heels.

Iglesias is the ultimate Latin pop fabrication, a finely crafted nugget of chart-topping radio amor ear candy, cashing in on his father Julio's name recognition and trademark trill while cultivating an immaculate Matt Le Blanc­en- Español look. Still he insists he's a Cinderella story in his introduction to "Si Tu Te Vas," bemoaning the fact that his first smash single was rejected by several record companies. His defenders point out that unlike Mexican smarm king Luis Miguel, Iglesias has written about half of his recorded oeuvre, and his voice does manage to carry the biggest room in New York.

The relentless three-chord lite-rock format Iglesias employs allows him to strike quite an array of dramatic poses, some, with his bandmates, unsurprisingly homoerotic. More than one of his romantic ballads have the taxing quality of a Cat Stevens dirge, and not even the occasional soca break or rambling cover of "La Bamba" can lend him an air of authenticity. But the numbing revelation that unlike his father, he is not a star but an amazing simulation never seems to matter to his frothing faithful, a stunning manifestation of the ascendant Hispanic entertainment dollar. "Turn around, baby, and let me see that ass!" shouts a suburban Latina as she topples over a railing into the seat next to me. Launching into "Desnudo," the emperor is about to shed his clothes. "I'm naked, confessing that I lied," he intones wistfully, "I'm guilty of having loved/Do what you will with me." — Ed Morales


Stealth Ace

Operating on a grand scale begets a certain glory in jazz, and those who arrange for large ensembles are often pegged as the music's big thinkers. But what about leaders who sagely calibrate smaller groups? The quartet Sherman Irby led at the Vanguard last week had a clever equilibrium, and on Thursday night the young alto player used each of his associates with a marked judiciousness. Sculpting the shifts— a brief banishment of pianist John Hicks, or a promenade solely in the company of drummer Willie Jones III— Irby portrayed himself as an ad lib architect. His impromptu moves were elaborate, even if his orchestra consisted only of four people.

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