[ECLECTIC FOLK] Laughter is the best medicine, or so the ubiquitous 'they' say. And, judging by how loudly John Callahan's cartoons (featured weekly in WW, see page 4) laugh at all sorts of often-taboo sociopolitical topics, it's easy to imagine that the 55-year-old quadriplegic subscribes to a similar philosophy. But, despite the knowing, breathy laugh that starts out Callahan's musical debut, Purple Winos in the Rain—on which he sings and plays harmonica and ukulele—most of the album's songs are both painfully honest and heartbreakingly sad.

From sing-alongs led by honky-tonk piano, winkingly clever country tunes and jazzy, piano- and flute-led ballads to blues-tinged, Tom Waitsian stingers and simple folk, Callahan's gentle tenor mostly tells stories of human struggle—many of which seem autobiographical. 'Portland Girl' tells of a young friend who died, and, like many of Callahan's songs, takes its lyrical inspiration from his poetry. 'Suicide in the Fall' describes a man who, in 'the hoarseness of the voices as they call,' finds the strength to carry on. Similar tracks, like 'Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel,' are almost unbearably sad, but the rough, lo-fi 'documentary version'—replete with vocal misfires, background noise and a ukulele that sounds so tightly wound it could pop a string at any moment—is also so nakedly beautiful it's captivating.

Produced by acclaimed blues guitarist Terry Robb, who also plays on most of the tracks, Purple Winos feels a tad long at 19 tracks, but its rewards—the album's melancholy opening, 'Lost in the City'; the harmonica-fueled, minute-long pop number 'Yesler Street'; Callahan's poignant story of when a 'Sinner Saves a Saint'; or his half-spoken, wicked account of how 'there's something sacred 'bout an overdose'—demand an attentive ear. Callahan's voice, much like those its inflections are reminiscent of—Dylan, Waits (whose answering-machine rendition of Callahan's 'Tears From the Rain' appears on the album), even Okkervil River's Will Sheff—isn't pitch-perfect, but what better voice to tell stories of uncensored humanity with?


John Callahan celebrates the release of Purple Winos in the Rain Saturday, Nov. 25, at Music Millennium Northwest. 5 pm. Free. All ages.