If you accept the proposition that "The Velvet Underground & Nico" lanced the soft white underbelly of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"'s quaint Utopian dreaming, then "Dongs Of Sevotion", Bill Callahan's thirteenth album under the Smog banner, stands in similar relief to Lambchop's marvellous country-soul epic "Nixon". Amidst the lo-fi sadcore-style fog lurks the sound of a frightened, fractured man working alone, the diametric opposite of Lambchop's all-inclusive community music, drawn from a similar wellspring but, on the surface at least, drained of the vitality and sly joyousness that "Nixon" is infused with.
Which isn't necessarily a criticism, of course. And like that album, the more you listen to "Dongs Of Sevotion", the more greatness bubbles to the surface of this strange brew. Moments to savour include "Dress Sexy At My Funeral", which fuses mordant humour with Beck-style sexual athleticism, and the appearance of a troupe of cheerleaders halfway through the excellent "Bloodflow". "No time for a tete-a-tetey/Can I borrow your machete?" they chant, in a perverse parallel of the gospel choir that enlighten Lambchop's "Up With People". The sound of rustling pom-poms appears to have been mixed out, for some reason.
"Dongs Of Sevotion" is a great album, albeit one perched precariously at the crossroads of alt country, clattery low-fi (the drum machine being a bit of a give-away) and the navel contemplation beloved of the sadcore movement. Nevertheless, if dreary tunes are your thing few artists today scrape the soul with such diseased elegance as Smog.
SMOG Rain On Lens (Domino)
On last year's Smog album, the marvellous "Dongs Of Sevotion", Bill Callahan swerved dangerously near to the more miserable end of alt.country convention, snagging sales from Lambchop enthusiasts in search of something a little harder. This year's Smog album, "Rain On Lens", sees Callahan's behaviour return to that of the irascible, gnomic voyeur of indie legend. It's a rhythmic album by default: the constant background clubbing of Pat Samson's drums and the backstabbing guitar blasts patrol these ten songs like wounded animals guarding their domain. The lyrics might read promisingly like Bukowski's poetry on the page - consider titles such as "Keep Some Steady Friends Around" and "Live As If Someone Is Always Watching You" - but much of the sly wit and observation they contain is bludgeoned away by the music, which keeps a terse, firm grip on proceedings. All of which makes "Rain On Lens" a difficult album to enjoy, which is probably its author's avowed intention.
SMOG A River Aint Too Much To Love (Drag City)
On his twelfth album as Smog, Bill Callahans singular worldview has been stripped away to near-biblical sparseness. Many of these songs appear to offer two parts arid storytelling to one part rueful moralising, usually with a combination of arrogance and misanthropy that might have Callahan pegged as Luke Haines alt.country cousin. Nevertheless, the music accompanying these observations is often so hesitant it makes Pink Moon sound like Brothers In Arms by comparison: listen, for example, to the way he uncertainly fumbles towards the slim melody of Palimpsest.
The best moments of A River Aint Too Much To Love, such as Say Valley Maker and Let Me See The Colts, offer a kind of mantric accretion. The bizarre distended timeline of The Well finds the protagonist quaking with fear for minutes on end at the prospect of a water droplet landing on him, and Drinking At The Dam offers some refreshingly unsentimental teenage reminiscences. Beneath all this Bills tiny band including at times fellow Drag City resident Joanna Newsom, who sprinkles droplets of piano over Rock Bottom Riser provide loose, improvisational support, expertly tracking their leaders unpredictable modulations and inflections.
Far less oppressive than the thumping, overbearing Rain On Lens album, this still aint no party, but those inclined towards the starker end of Americana will find much to admire here. The US vinyl pressing, incidentally, is another pleasantly plump package, including a separate lyric sheet, poster and glorious sonics that reveal every last creak.
SMOG Knock Knock (Drag City)
Simultaneously honest and upfront yet mysteriously encoded, Bill Callahans seventh album under the Smog veil has, like the best of his work, a subtly disorientating effect on the listener. Perhaps its the sweet n sour mix of music and subject matter, or the incongruous appearances by a chorus of small children. Initially s(t)olid, perhaps, his songs reveal layers of intriguing detail the more theyre examined. They seem to be less songs than elliptical still lives, moments of headlong rushing innermost thoughts magnified into verse.
The not-quite-narrative of River Guard is at one straightforward and mystifying, No Dancing chugging and ominous. The delicate Teenage Spaceship hides what Im presuming is a subtle tribute to T. Rexs 20th Century Boy in its lyrics. The albums big non-hit Cold Blooded Old Times almost disguises its domestic violence storyline with a jaunty tune; Hit The Ground Running is slow-burning and sardonic, its opening line I had to leave the country neatly counterbalancing the albums first track, Lets Move To The Country. Tucked away at the end of the record, Left Only With Love is perhaps its finest moment. Utterly unvarnished, it has an astonishing emotional directness.
Maybe not Callahans finest achievement, in my limited experience of the Smog back catalogue it nevertheless achieves a respectable second place behind Dongs Of Sevotion; newcomers to the mans twisted folk could do far worse than begin here.