(Clicka qui per la versione Italiana)
Smog, the alias of Bill Callahan,
a superb architect of fatalist and oneiric atmospheres, devoted his opus to the
paranoid exploration of an obsessive theme, the theme of a life that slowly
fades away in nothingness. Smog identified so much with his poetry of
loneliness that his songs seemed to lull himself into an intoxicating state of apathy and languor.
Like Nick Drake before him, Smog conveyed the dismal sense of angst felt by
one who did not want to live in a world that he did not love.
With the brief, primitive and minimal compositions of
Sewn To The Sky (1990) and Forgotten Foundation (1992),
Smog experimented with a format of gloomy litanies set to irrational arrangements
that recalled Daniel Johnston.
Julius Caesar (1993), instead, introduced a sophisticated composer and
arranger, no matter how spectral and tragic the mood. Songs that ran the gamut
from expressionist psychodrama to neoclassical lied, and often sounded like
a rehearsal for Lou Reed's funeral, reached deep into the singer's alienation.
The even more "mundane" approach of Wild Love (1995) refined Smog's
chamber pop, the artist spinning his rosary of self-flagellation in a solemn
tone, no matter how dark the catacomb in which he was buried alive.
On albums such as Red Apple Falls (1997), Smog became a master of scripting soundtracks for an ordinary daily life: melodies borrowed from pop, country and classical music hinted at inner tragedies that never surface but simmer in absolute emptiness.
Biography and reviews.
(Translation from the Italian by Nicole Zimmerman)
Smog was Bill Callahan, one of the more significant singer-song-writers of the 90's, and one of the voices that redefined the concept of "soloist" in an era of "lo-fi" and of "post-rock".
Splendid architect of the dreamy fatalist atmosphere, Smog was also a poet that stubbornly repeated the same theme, that of a life that slowly fades into nothing, and has identified himself to this point in his poetry in hope of the intoxication of starvation and listlessness. In the tradition of the great intimate and minimalist storytellers (Nick Drake, Daniel Johnston, My Dad Is Dead), Smog expressed, above all , a profound sense of anguish of one who is obligated to live in a world without love.
The singer-song-writer was born in 1966 in New Hampshire, but raised in Maryland and England. Callahan started in music in Georgia and then settled in California (first in San Francisco and then Sacramento).
His songbook was casual and rambling, rigorously "lo-fi", and remained relegated to self-produced cassettes for several years (Macram, Gunplay, 1988; Cow, 1989; A Table Setting, 1990; Tired Tape Machine, 1990).
With the ultra-primitive poetic license of Sewn To The Sky (Disaster, 1990), Smog renounced harmony, leaving the muddled confusion of the instruments which produced the music. Beyond the short, absurd interludes, where almost anything was permitted (and that touched the top of spectacular irrationality in the instrumental Russian Winter), Smog arranged the songs making the pulses more stabbing, the rhythms more off-time, and the vocals more disoriented. Kings Tongue resembled a version of White Light White Heat by the Velvet Underground redone by the Flying Lizard. Captain Beefheart would have been proud of the ramshackle blues of Hollow Out Cakes and Lost My Key. And some rhythms, virtually without any sounds that are identifiable, such as Fruit Bats and Puritan Work Ethic, dwell in the realm that is inhabited characters like Wild Man Fisher. Another one of his specialties was creating a song around an unusual rhythm, focusing on things like a strumming asthmatic in Polio Shimmy, thus are the out-of-tune rhythmic styles of Smog. Only in two cases did Smog attempt to communicate, Peach Pie and A Jar Of Sand, which put into words the depression found in the sound. The basic philosophy was that of a solitary heart that does not want to accept the outside world, with its rules of production, consumption, and regulations of communication.
A personality reserved and moderate, Smog took the sidelines in the world of pageantry. After the EP Floating (Drag City), with the succinct hatred of Red Apples and Turb, the album Forgotten Foundation (Drag City, 1992) was recorded (alone as usual) finally with strong regular songs like Burning Kingdom and Your Dress; but also with the usual carnival of absurd melodies and even more absurd accompaniment of: only guitar (Filament), only percussion (Evil Tyrant), or of nothing (Guitar Innovator, screamed a cappella in an anguished tone). Smog found refuge in the traditional medium of introverts, the folk ballad, first with Head Of Stone II and Bad Ideas For Country Songs, and then (above all) with Bad Investment. From that format, Smog took its cue and started to sing with an air of majesty but tragedy in This Insane Cop, worthy of David Peel. The instrumentals were part of the story: the exotic Barometric Pressure touches upon Johnathan Richman, Savage Republic, and Holy Modal Rounders; Kiss Your Lips is a copycat variation on the riff in You Really Got Me; Dead River extended the martial pace of Neil Young; Do The Bed surpassed psychedelic garage-rock. Everything was always of the minimalist philosophy - means and effects. In the end, everything became condensed in the anthem of existential boredom I'm Smiling. The essence of the music was indeed more direct, cruel, and autobiographical in nature in High School Freak, in which Smog seemed to enjoy the torment.
Naturally, within a few years, Smog was flanked by various groups like Royal Trux, Pavement, Sebadoh, and Beat Happening, that hit the charts of "lo-fi" pop. But, Smog's only true counterpart was, if anyone, Daniel Johnston. However, his abhorrent private stories are not equal in level of introversion.
Smog abandoned that vein and began its primary season with Julius Caesar (Drag City, 1993). With Kim Osterwalder by his side on violin, Callahan rediscovered harmony and orchestration, even if he did it his way. The country-western 37 Push-Ups, the driving force for local bands When You Walk and the psychedelic serenade of What Kind Of Angel became transfigured romances that were as ghostly as they were tragic, and ended with the Baroque heights of Your Wedding (Hispanic style guitar and minimalist cello) and Stick In The Mud (a good 5 minutes of sedated classical counterpoint). Chosen One crowns the progression towards a regular song. The harmonic genius of Smog was found again, however, in the anemic and apathetic Strawberry Rash, that seemed to take notes from Heroin by the Velvet Underground, slowed down, ground, and drowned in a bleak and boring mood. I Am A Star Wars, with the riff of Honky Tonk Woman by the Rolling Stones, brought out the verve that Smog always had at the heart of its dark mood. The sophistication of the method allowed Smog to create Stalled On The Tracks, an expressionist counterpoint to the pulsing noises, and perhaps fully expressed the existential melancholy of Callahan. The disc conserved the enigmatic characteristics of the preceding discs. It could be understood that Smog was not happy, but one could not understand what Smog wanted to communicate. The meaning was at least impervious in the sonata for cello One Less Star, steeped in emotion, or, returned to the demented origins of the soloist, in Connections. There were "only" 13 songs this time and it was not only the format that was changed.
Preceded by the single ,A Hit, with the splendid Wine-Stained Lips, the mini-album Burning Kingdom (Drag City, 1994) was the first of Smog's discs to be played as truly complex rock music and featured professional arrangements, which further perfected the theatrical technique of Smog. Prepared by a long introduction of unnerving distortions, My Shell created, through a raga trance, the sense of a nightmare. Smog resumed the archaic/erotic atmosphere of Nico in Drunk On The Stars. The unsettling excursion of My Family (also a hit single) made use of sinister ceremonial rhythm. And with Desert, Smog sank into a solitude that verged on being claustrophobic.
Wild Love (Drag City, 1995) passed through the same shady path, with the calm pace of maturity. The stories of Smog penetrated deep into the soul of the listener, imbued with sadness and loneliness, because they were wrapped in a heap of sound that isolated Smog from the worldliness of rock. The chamber pop style is now an art-form itself: the thoroughbred that is Bathysphere (one of Callahan's masterpieces) was a mixture of orchestral minimalism and lunar sol-fa, which ran on nervous compositions on Television-esque guitar and the singer's sketched out litany, like that of Cure; the long, painful tangent of Prince Alone In The Studio relied on a clever symphonic counterpoint, like if the first King Crimson were performing the music of Nick Drake. Several miniatures reduced the vocals to the bare minimum, as if to sing was a passing fad, and accentuated the instrumental part to the absolute maximum. Echoes in the distance, dismal accord among the string instruments, and jingling of bells kept the song alive in Wild Love, which lasted little more than one minute. The dissonant chime of Sweet Smog Children and the solemn march of The Emperor made, in effect, the group a disciple (ascetic) of Brian Eno. The rhyme of Goldfish Bowl directly revealed the influence of Michael Nyman in the pressing programs of the orchestra. The melody and instrumental rock took back the upper hand only in the nightmare of It's Rough and in the painful ballad Be Hit. Smog did not mess up even one song, did not waste even one second. Jim O'Rourke lent himself nicely to the cello, but it is Callahan who decided the fate of the disc, on guitar and keyboard.
The EP Kicking A Couple Around (Drag City, 1996) was a tribute to the past, a quiet return to the austere sound, principally solitary and acoustic. Back In School, I Break Horses, and The Orange Glow experimented with a new style of recitation, hypnotically slow whispers, and timid accord of the guitar, with the shaky intimacy of the first Leonard Cohen. Your New Friend was more an affectionate conversation found in a bedroom than a song.
The Doctor Came At Dawn (Drag City, 1996), once again entirely played alone, disappointed listeners, and became more like occasional music. Smog, perhaps distracted by the success of Beck, lost time with ballads for voice and guitar such as Somewhere In The Night, Everything You Touch, and Whistling Teapot. Callahan even tried to compose a normal song, Four Hearts In A Can. He was redeemed by the classical trance You Moved In, lulled by worn peals on the piano and in stormy clouds of languid violin, the even hallucination of Spread Your Bloody Wings, and the solemn mediation like that of Leonard Cohen in All Your Woman Things. The genius came to the surface in the a cappella finale Hangman Blues, perhaps the slowest and most resigned blues of all time.
Red Apple Falls (drag City, 1997) is a classic disc, conscientious of having created a style and of having the room to live it until the end. The Morning Paper might have been the crowning sound of a documentary of the ordinary person, recited with the tone of Donovan on a guitar rhythm and between the sol-fas of a French horn. In the emptiness is where the inner tragedy could be found in Red Apples, a sad romance on piano which hangs on very faint murmurs. Callahan's voice agonized in a dream of transient colors, without air, maybe underground. Even at his most depressing he did not have an equal. I Was A Stranger began with a melodious theme on piano that was worthy to be one of Beethoven's early sonatas, and then he expanded to a Hawaiian theme (unusually lively) on guitar. Only Cohen was more philosophical, immersed in the stories of failure and fatalism, and able to touch lightly upon the height of emotion in Blood Red Bird and Red Apple Falls, and brought to mind the country-rock existential Gram Parsons (duly slow and smooth) for Inspirational. Callahan even permitted the imitation of the disenchanted tones and light boogie of Lou Reed in Ex-Con (between the French horn and Hammond piano). He was an ingenious musician that that stayed with elaborate, complex arrangements and invented a classic composition style, and did it all with an intense determination. This album constituted a scant joining of the two styles around which his work fluctuated, like the austerity found in Kicking and the Baroque (for his standards) of Wild Love.
Knock Knock (Drag City, 1999) represents, for a character as bashful
and modest as Callahan, a considerable breakthrough. Smog's music would be
almost unrecognizable, if it weren't for his singing and his lyrics. On one
hand the care in the orchestration, on the other hand the stylistic variety
contribute to transform his ghostly songs into elegant chamber compositions.
So much so that Let's Move To The Country picks up Oh Superman's
litany from an early Laurie Anderson single, the string section repeating a
minimalist pattern. This could not be farther from his habitual style.
Smog has scored an album full of surprises. The story of
No Dancing is "told" in David Bowie's decadent tone on a hard-rock
riff, but the refrain is sung by a choir of children on amarching band's
The syncopated rhythm and the guitar feedback of Held create the ideal
setting for a Nick Cave melodrama, although the delivery is rather in the
style of Lou Reed's cold and fatalistic baritone.
However, the most introverted moments remain the core of his art.
In River Guard (six minutes) his subdued meditation, paced by the
tolls of a slightly out-of-tune piano, is reminiscent of the young Neil Young
in one of his most depressed moments or of Tom Waits is one of his most sober
Teenage Spaceship resuscitates Nick Drake's tenuous melisma
and gloomy atmospheres.
Sweet Treat sinks in existential void, two graveyards below
The album takes on a meaning as soon as Callahan decides to shut down his
life. This is his true ego, or at least the one where Callahan the artist
is at his best.
Unfortunately, Knock Knock tends to "rock" too much. The heavy paced
tracks are also the weakest. Cold Blooded Old Times fails, and even
worse fares the lengthy Hit The Ground Running (seven minutes),
both played to Lou Reed's lighter boogies.
These and other inferior tracks keep the album from reaping the rewards
it would deserve for the boldness of the arrangements.
Dongs Of Sevotion (Drag City, 2000) finds Smog
drawn towards the mainstream sound that he used to shun, although still quite
far from sounding like Michael Jackson or David Bowie.
Callahan sings his own testament, Dress Sexy At My Funeral, in a Lou
Reed-ian baritone and over a lighter variation of Velvet Underground's boogie.
The theme of this and other selections is death, all the way down to
Permanent Smile, a grotesquely martial hymn that sounds like
a self-eulogy (with an obsessive guitar jangle that recalls minimalist
Another highlight, Bloodflow, features an effervescent rhythm that
turns the silliest lyrics of his career into a tribal dance number
(somewhat reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk).
John McEntyre and Jeff Parker of Tortoise, who lend
a hand, may be responsible for the looser, harsher textures:
Smog recounts the litany of Justice Aversion while
the electronic percussion emits sparse patterns and
a psychedelic guitar wails in the background;
Smog utters the lyrics of The Hard Road against the backdrop of
disjointed Kinks-ian guitar riffs;
Cold Discovery explores a repeated pattern of piano notes in
a barren soundscape of ghostly guitar licks.
Callahan's true voice is still to be found in the down-to-earth,
spare arrangements and subdued, mournful lament of
Easily Led, Nineteen and Devotion, rather than in
the complex and lenghty (eight minutes) melodrama of Distance.
The album is still as intense as Smog can be.
Smog contributes to the
supersession Tramps Traitors and Little Devils (Drag City, 2001)
with Edith Frost and
Rain On Lens (Drag City, 2001)
seems to halt Smog's quest for his (musical and personal) roots.
After returning to a sparse, emotional, intensely intimate sound on
Smog advances to post-rock and, backed by Eleventh Dream Day's Rick Rizzo and
U.S. Maples' guitarist Pat Samson, drenches his songs in cold,
claustrophobic, brainy tension (its zenith in Dirty Pants).
The beginning, Rain On Lens, is as dramatic and suspenseful as the Doors'
The End, but little of what comes afterwards stands up to that
unnerving, fear-laden ouverture.
The problem is that Smog does not have the songs to match the ambition.
With the notable exception of the touching
Live As If Someone Is Always Watching You,
the album feels like one hollow, monotonous recitation,
one faceless dirge (Natural Decline) after the other
(Keep Some Steady Friends Around).
Smog's early masterpieces were stark, haunting, bleak. Smog's late
is simply soporiferous.
Accumulation: None (Drag City, 2002) compiles rarities and remixed
Supper (Drag City, 2003) is an odd, almost schizophrenic collection,
that ranges from the waltzing country elegy Feather by Feather to the
Lou Reed-ian boogie Butterflies Drowned in Wine (with tribal drums,
courtesy of Jim White). By the third song, the sloppy, dirty, slow-burning
Rolling Stones-ian blues of Morality, Callahan-Smog has thrown
the listener into his moral universe with little or no help from the lyrics
(which are certainly not his best). It is the music alone that sets the tone,
the pace and the mood.
The sequencing of the songs enhances this aspect of the album, as the songs
get more and more solemn and rarefied, and the lyrics abandon Smog's companion
to delve into metaphysical puzzles.
Ambition spins its noir/lounge tale over tense, suspenseful guitar
chords. Vessel in Vain returns to an old-fashioned pace, echoing
Leonard Cohen in his prime, a feat doubled when the seven-minute
Truth Serum brings back perfumes of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
Driving is chanted like a Tibetan prayer over loose jamming.
It sounds like
Smog has entered a new phase of his career and of his life.
The voice of the closing
A Guiding Light, the philosophical apex of this journey
(in which Callahan finds his "guiding light" in the statement he just made
of "trying to prove wrong/ all the statements I made"), is the voice of
a man who stands calmly on the threshold of his house, looking outside,
and sees the same old place with new eyes.
Smog has achieved an intriguing synthesis of the languages coined over the
decades by legions of singer-songwriters. In doing so, Smog's art has lost quite
a bit of what made it so personal (it has lost emotional depht),
but it has gained immensely in its universal appeal as a sound and a voice
of its times.
Not as intimate as it used to be (in fact, quite public and almost extroverted),
Bill "Smog" Callahan went south to record
A River Ain't Too Much To Love (Drag City, 2005), featuring
Connie Lovatt on bass and
Dirty Three's Jim White on drums.
It made sense, since his art had become rather similar (in scope, if not in
sound) to country Music: confessional but whined to the world, melancholy
but fundamentally positive in nature, narrative more than contemplative,
tuneless but packaged in an easily recognizably format.
Give him credit that he writes much more interesting lyrics than the best
country songwriters can ever dream of writing, and that he has a flair for
tactful and tasty arrangements.
Maybe Callahan has decided to rejoin his fellow citizens after living his
teenage years in snobbish isolation. This is, after all, an album of American
music, coupling American imagery and American roots-music.
The Well, Drinking at the Dam,
I Feel Like the Mother of the World fit well in this category, while
the sophisticated and humble arrangements of Rock Bottom Riser
(one of the highlights) and the
likes remind us of where he came from.
Whatever the rationale,
Smog made his honky-tonk album and is ready for mass acceptance.
As a veteran and consummate angst consumer, Callahan sounds a lot less
engaging that he used to sound as a young and awkward angst producer.
Woke On A Whaleheart (Drag City, 2007) treads in the footprints of
Smog's early music but, at the same time, seems torn between
Neil Hagerty's psycho production and
the funk/soul sound of the 1960s.
Sycamore, The Wheel and especially Diamond Dancer
sound both old introverted Smog and someone (extroverted) else.
The majestic love song
From The Rivers To The Ocean and
A Man Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man
bookend the song cycle of a rather superficial observer.
If Smog/Callahan's career was a long tortuous form of catharsis, then this
album marks the point when the catharsis is complete and Smog has simply
become a traditional pop songwriter and arranger.
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City, 2009), the second album
released under his real name, continued the transformation into smoky pop-blues
singer with twangy guitar and discreet string arrangements, a sort of
sober counterpart to
Tom Waits' glorious madness.
His dreadfully calm and monotonous voice tries in vain to modulate a melody
in Jim Cain
That voice would kill a whale, if it weren't for the occasionally creative
arrangements. And so it's the staccato piano, the dark horns and
the propulsive strings that turn Eid Ma Clack Shaw into a magic
experience, somewhere between the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby and
The sequence of Middle-eastern horns, mourning cello, jazzy guitar and
soaring violin makes The Wind and the Dove moving in a way that the
melody alone would not have achieved.
Rococo Zephyr is a folkish lullabye adrift in
neoclassical string harmonies over a somnolent lounge rhythm.
The trotting rhythm is the main attraction on
All Thoughts are Prey to Some Beast,
as a variety of instruments alternate in taking centerstage, something that
evokes Stan Ridgway's epos especially as
it rolls towards its thundering finale.
Callahan intones a Cat Stevens-ian sermon
ten-minute Faith/Void, that repeats the mantra "It's time to put god away" among majestic violins.
The arrangements, in other words, are much more than wallpaper: they drive
the narrative part of the song as much as the lyrics do, and are responsible
for most of the emotional part.
The lyrics, on the other hand, mostly provide an obsessive and somewhat goofy
self-portrait that does not quite match the music.
Too Many Birds might point to the future: just plain lightweight pop
music for supermarkets.
Rough Travel For A Rare Thing (2010) is a live album performed in
the style of a bar band.
Apocalypse (2011), again credited to Bill Callahan, is the natural
continuation of Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle.
The opulent sound (by his standards) guides the listener through th
Western-inspired Drover, the
pompous America and especially
pensive and touching Riding For the Feeling and One Fine Morning.
Dream River (Drag City, 2013) coupled Callahan's static, middle-aged baritone with goofy Latin-tinged arrangements.
The combination works only in a few cases, like when
Javelin Unlanding appears to be
mocking spaghetti-western soundtracks of the 1960s,
or in the jazzy atmosphere of Ride My Arrow (too bad that Callahan does
not have the vocal skills to sustain what Van Morrison or Tim Buckley would
have turned into an epic Latin-jazz jam).
The sense of desolation and internal struggle that this music is meant to
evoke is broadcast in all its terrible power only by Summer Painter,
thanks to an extraterrestrial flute and a pulsing bass line.
Small Plane adapts the structure of Pachelbel's looping Canon
to one of his memorable narratives.
The other songs, however, tend to lose momentum because their music
is just too evanescent.
Callahan never was a great lyricist, and he hasn't improved much.
When the music is downplayed, one is left with a very minor bard singing
about trivial subjects.
Have Fun With God (2014) is a dub remix of Dream River.
Bill Callahan's sprawling 20-song
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (2019)
is a calm, detached work, and also one of his "easiest".
Now 53 years old and settled into domestic life with a wife and a son,
disarmingly "domestic", where even the sounds of his family life become part
of the music.
Callahan offers his views on life in the usual spartan settings but
paying more attention to the accompaniments, a level of attention that makes
songs such as Writing,
Tugboats and Tumbleweeds and Watch Me Get Married
sound more lively
(but sometimes the arrangement exaggerates, like in The Ballad of The Hulk, that employs a drum-machine).
The album begins in typical Smog fashion, with
his growling un-musical voice halfway between Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen
introducing Shepherd's Welcome, and then indulges in simple heartfelt
tunes such as the serenade What Comes After Certainty and
the agonizing Circles.
but the stately honky-tonk of Black Dog on the Beach
and the bluesy, waltzing Son of the Sea show that the center of mass
has shifted, and this is now
more Gordon Lightfoot than Leonard Cohen.
The problem is that the album overstays its welcome after ten minutes,
and beyond that it's painful to pick the songs that are worth it.
A more traditional folk style surfaces in 747, with some of his most philosophical lines ("There was blood when you were born and the blood was wiped from your eyes/ This must be the light you saw that just left you screaming/ And this must be the light you saw before our eyes could disguise true meaning/ And this must be the light you saw just as you were leaving") and in
Call Me Anything ("I never was the things I said I was/ But it's not as if I lied/ What I was, all I was/ Was the effort to describe/ The effort to describe").
The lowest point is a cover of the traditional Lonesome Valley.