Nom de Gloom
"I see the night sky as a jewelry store window and my mind is half a brick."
from (Smog)'s "Natural Decline"
When you listen to (Smog) (Yes, the parentheses are intentional), you are rewarded for bringing all of your disturbing dreams and repressed expressions to the table. And while you may not always understand what the lyrics are saying, you know exactly what singer/songwriter Bill Callahan is talking about. Welcoming the listener into his big, sad world, Callahan emerges as (Smog)'s obstinate genius, cobbling together a twisted union of professional sparkle and lo-fi charm.
Really, (Smog) is a one-man project with Callahan at the helm and a few hired studio musicians to fill in the sound. And while he avoids the pretentious country-boy posturing of Will Oldham (to whom he is often compared), Callahan does emerge as a wonderfully eccentric visionary.
Even the name of the band is a peek into the quirk-filled window to Callahan's disjointed soul.
"The name (Smog) was chosen about two years before I even wrote a song," Callahan intones shyly. "It meant little then, and means almost nothing now. It's just like having a cat that you never really bother to name. So you just call it kitty. I've since put brackets around the name so it's only a reference."
Since the 1990 debut of Sewn to the Sky, (Smog) has managed nearly twenty releases in one form or another, including the critically lauded Dongs of Sevotion and Neath the Puke Tree. This string of sharply recorded releases have set Callahan apart as a prolific artist with an impressive catalog. His tune "Cold Blooded Old Times" was even included on the musically elite soundtrack to High Fidelity.
With tunes that cut to the marrow, Callahan uses his deadpan vocals and spare folk strumming to accent his deliberately obtuse lyrics. And it's the genuine emotion of Callahan's simple structures and voice that set (Smog) apart from the lovesick indie masses and the lollapalosers.
"It's that old idea of a song is strongest if it can be delivered with just one instrument and voice," explains Callahan. "That's where it has to begin."
Keeping things simple, main brain Callahan delivers music as mysteriously evocative and hovering as his project's name. Shards of noise fly from the amplifier as vivid vignettes of everyday life slowly develop.
" I do find that I get most of my inspiration from interacting with other people," Callahan says, shedding light on the creation of his compositions. "Really, writing is just something that happens. Reading, watching movies, looking at art - these things all kind of pump you up, like a corner man giving you a quick massage, but tracing actual inspiration back to them is impossible mostly. Better not to think about it, take a walk, look at the seagulls."
"You just go about your business," Callahan continues, "and occasionally write something down on a scrap of paper. Usually, it's like writing in a foreign language, one you only know a few phrases in so you're not really sure what is being said. But you are writing it and you know it means something."
(Smog)'s latest song cycle finds Callahan pushing his limits even farther. Rain on Lens is another woozy, atmospheric recording with a spooky mood. Like the title suggests, there's the hint of a ruined attempt, the image of a film take gone wrong and a desperate need to start over.
Painfully sincere and personal, Rain On lens is filled with Callahan's trademark downbeat delivery. "Dirty Pants" has an Eddie Vedder vibe while "Revanchism" shows some pop chops and even has a bit of a bounce to it. There's a firm commitment to misery in the thumping, Velvet Underground-influenced tunes "Natural Decline" and "Live As If Someone Is Always Watching You." "Short Drive" has the driving beat of a Ramones standard with more Lou Reed-style vocal pining while "Lazy Rain" creeps along, building with eerie background squelches.
But like the remnants of a hangover in the dim kitchen of a cheap apartment, Rain On Lens lingers and toys with you.
"I had a basic concept for the arrangements to be calm on the surface with chaos beneath," Callahan says about his approach to Rain On Lens. "Like a pool of still water that you could see sharks in, watching them from safety."
At his mordant, poetic best, Callahan is a marvel of pop minimalism. Relying on pure instinct and natural ability, he forges ahead like gifted revolutionaries before him.
"You see someone like James Brown or Prince or John Lee Hooker," states Callahan. "And you see them bouncing down the hallway like a wooden ball and you just want to run after them. You start to, but once you're out of the house, they've disappeared and you're on your own, with that buzz in your chest."
(Smog) provides just such a buzz. Despite the enigmatic lyricism and haunting approach, you'll smile when you step into Callahan's world. And for once, you'll be glad that there's a little (Smog) in the air.
Smog plays at Lynagh's on Friday, October 5, with Neil Michael Haggerty. The show starts at 10pm. Tickets are $8. Call 255-6614 for more info.
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