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Smog / Bill Callahan

Sad-core singer-songwriter or lo-fi folk-blues artist, the reflective and intimate BILL CALLAHAN (aka SMOG) has pushed the envelope in fresh genres that seem to widen with each and every one of his releases. The painfully introverted granddaddy of the American lo-fi scene (although he professes to loathe that particular term), maybe one day Bill will reap some commercial rewards rather than a raft of critical ones.
Born William Rahr Callahan, June 3, 1966, Silver Springs, Maryland, the reluctant star began self-releasing his menacing creations from his bedroom in a series of mainly instrumental cassette-only affairs. Initially issued on his own Disaster imprint, `Macrame Gunplay’ (1988), `Cow’ (1989), `A Table Setting’ (1990) and `Tired Tape Machine’ (1990) set the tone for a debut vinyl-album proper, SEWN TO THE SKY (1990) {*5}. One of the man’s only releases from these uneasy salad days to gain a bona fide re-issue by the Drag City label in the mid-90s, the latter set was a harsh introduction to an artist in tortuous transition. A “foggy notion” distortion, abrasive production sensibilities and skewered melodies were the order of the day; most accessible picks delivered were `The Weightlifter’, `Kings Tongue’ and `Russian Winter’ – in a word, bleak.
One of the first batch of artists signed to the aforementioned Drag City, SMOG/Callahan carried on in much the same vein with his skeletal premise, although in a more conventionally song-structured direction for the FORGOTTEN FOUNDATION (1992) {*5} set. If one can imagine DANIEL JOHNSTON or JOHN LURIE sharing a “timelord” studio with PAVEMENT, immediate tracks standing out from the pack were `Your Dress’, `Do The Bed’ and the short opening piece, `Burning Kingdom’.
Bill only really started whetting critical appetites with 1993’s acclaimed JULIUS CAESAR {*8}, a set that was recorded with sometime collaborator Cynthia Dall (CINDY DALL), boasting sharper, more robust songwriting (`One Less Star’, `When You Walk’ and `Chosen One’), embellished with string flourishes and synth tinkling; brazen samplings of The ROLLING STONES’ `Start Me Up’/`Honky Tonk Women’ was ultimate lo-fi on `I Am Star Wars!’. While the lyrical misery continued unabated on mini-set/EP `Burning Kingdom’ (without that title track one might add!), the reclusive pessi-meister could make WILL OLDHAM sound like a circus clown.
Yet, while Bill’s sad-eyed music could be overbearingly claustrophobic, it was more often genuinely moving, while the painstakingly demure artist recounted tales of everyday heartbreak/failure, as featured on WILD LOVE (1995) {*7} and the `Kicking A Couple Around’ EP, both offering up an almost voyeuristic view into the man’s insular world. Produced in-house by Rian Murphy, literate crystals such as `Bathysphere’, `It’s Rough’ and the flickering `The Candle’, plus a handful penned with girlfriend Cynthia (including the 7-minute `Prince Alone In The Studio’), the songs were detailed as they were dense.
The bitter fruit of THE DOCTOR CAME AT DAWN (1996) {*8} and RED APPLE FALLS (1997) {*7} further confirmed Bill as the crown prince of sad-core, a label he’d no doubt detest even more than lo-fi. Listeners that could stick around for second and third helpings were always rewarded with the man’s self-deprecating honesty on the likes of `Lize’, `You Moved In’ and `All Your Women Things’ (from the former set), while Bill could always evoke emotion through `I Was A Stranger’, `To Be Of Use’ and the flighty `Ex-Con’ (from the latter).
KNOCK KNOCK (1999) {*8} was described as an album for teenagers and definitely one of his best, as SMOG were now becoming the most popular one-man band in America. When one thinks of Callahan, WILL OLDHAM, LAMBCHOP and DANIEL JOHNSTON always seemed to spring to mind, but on his side, misery loved no company as he strode through gentle grunge-country, brooding blues-folk and whatever pigeonhole one might use to affiliate cherry-pickers `Hit The Ground Running’, `I Could Drive Forever’, `River Guard’, et al.
The man’s ironic humour and love of wordplay were all too evident in the title of his umpteenth opus DONGS OF SEVOTION (2000) {*7}, wherein Callahan knelt once more at the alter of his melancholy, minimalistic muse. Worshippers found much to praise in the likes of `Nineteen’ and `Permanent Smile’, the high priest of pathos wringing as much emotion from his own faltering experience as the third person character sketches.
In an (undoubtedly ironic) PRINCE-like move, Bill altered the SMOG moniker to the in-brackets (SMOG) for RAIN ON LENS (2001) {*6}, a continuation of “Dongs…” hypnotic studies of the human condition; check out `Natural Decline’, `Live As If Someone Is Always Watching You’, `Short Drive’ and `Song’.
The unrelentingly prolific (SMOG) were back in 2003 with SUPPER {*7}, his most immediate, amiable and candid work in many a year; a backing band that comprised Ken Champion (pedal steel), Andy Hopkins (guitar), Ryan Hembrey (bass/cello), Jim White and Rian Murphy (drums), complemented his emotional bleating. Long-time SMOG observers would be comforted to know that he’d lost none of his morose genius, although there were hints of contentment here, not least the really rather sweet `Our Anniversary’, plus `Butterflies Drowned In Wine’ and `Feather By Feather’.
Wrapping up his SMOG enterprise by way of A RIVER AIN’T TOO MUCH TO LOVE (2005) {*8}, Bill brought in a handful of friends in accompaniment, mainly freak-folk pianist JOANNA NEWSOM, trusty drummer Jim White (of DIRTY THREE), bassist Connie Lovat and fiddler Travis Weller. Almost 60s country with a darkened twist of roots and waltzing Americana in a near clone of a milder KRISTOFFERSON or WILLIE NELSON (it was recorded at the latter’s Pedernales studio on Texas), Bill graced each song with a lilting reverence and ease. From `Rock Bottom Riser’, `I Feel Like The Mother Of The World’ and the solemn `Say Valley Maker’ to a re-tread of trad tune, `In The Pines’, one could almost feel his stream of consciousness oozing from the tips of his fingers.
With SMOG in the distance and BILL CALLAHAN ready to explore pastures new as he re-adopted his proper moniker for the first time, WOKE ON A WHALEHEART (2007) {*7} – featuring single `Diamond Dancer’ – also dispensed with the old-hat lo-fi. Produced by ROYAL TRUX’s Neil Hagerty and relying heavily on gospel-ish backing from Deani Pugh-Flemmings; multi-instrumental Howard Draper, bassist Steve Bernal and drummer Thor Harris were also in tow, there was no genre safe on the likes of the musically ambidextrous `Footprints’, `From The Rivers To The Ocean’ and `A Man Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man’.
In formulaic aplomb although keeping in with the times, SOMETIMES I WISH WE WERE AN EAGLE (2009) {*8}, finally found a wider audience in his home country. Tempered by a lush production that complemented his quavering vocal chords, CALLAHAN’s fragile `The Wind And The River’, `Jim Cain’, `Too Many Birds’ and `My Friend’ were high up in his quest to become a well-respected singer-songwriter/artist – long-gone were his experimental sprawling of lo-fi.
2011’s APOCALYPSE {*8} was CALLAHAN’s third studio album. Exploring the myths and folklore of his homeland (`America!’ was a typical example), protagonist Bill delved deeper than anything before; tracks from `Drover’ to `One Fine Morning’ at first coming across quite simple, but with added flourishes sun-ripening and ultimately complex.
At long-last an album that broke nocturnal narrator CALLAHAN into the elusive Top 100 (Top 50 in the UK!), the Texas-recorded DREAM RIVER (2013) {*8}, again touched on Americana country, while stylistic and skeletal swoons back spacy-type guitars. Augmented once again by Matt Kinsey, Thor Harris (and a cover painting by Paul Ryan), Bill moved his own palette of poignancy and philosophy into some literate gems like `Ride My Arrow’, `Spring’, and `Seagull’. A complementary remix set, HAVE A GOD (2014) {*6} was issued shortly afterwards; every track supplemented by the word “dub”.
A little space was then necessary for Bill to assume his position of steady boyfriend, and subsequent husband, to filmmaker Hanly Banks; their boy, Bass, was born in March 2015. Sadly, the passing of CALLAHAN’s mother, three years later, coincided with the dispatch of an album at the bequest of JACK WHITE’s imprint. Entitled LIVE AT THIRD MAN RECORDS (2018) {*6}, it was obviously a concert set recorded the previous October.
Flowing with reflections of life and loss, the brooding baritone Bill resumed his storyteller/songwriter equilibrium with the drop of the 20-song CD/double-LP, SHEPHERD IN A SHEEPSKIN VEST (2019) {*8}. It somehow breached the UK Top 40, but failed to register a Billboard bleep. Roping in steadfast buddy Matt Kinsey, a six-year absence was redressed by the mournful `Shepherd’s Welcome’, the twangy front-porch `Black Dog On The Beach’, the smoky `Angela’, and lots more besides (including `Young Icarus’, `Watch Me Get Married’ and `Son Of The Sea’). Christian CALLAHAN’s deep directives presented a witty or wistful wonderment; his lyrical imagery painted pictorials like some old-timey CARTER FAMILY cousin (twice removed), standing head-to-head with LAMBCHOP’s Kurt Wagner, or, indeed WILL OLDHAM.
© MC Strong 1999-2003/GA&ID / rev-up MCS Nov2013-Jun2019

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