Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Album Review: Smog – Red Apple Falls

Smog’s 1997 album saw mainman Bill Callahan team up with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke to flesh out the sound with French horns, trumpets, piano and steel guitar featuring prominently in a bid to shrug off the ‘lo-fi’ tag. Whatever lo-fi means.

Callahan still had his rickety buzzing guitar at this point, and a fair degree of vulnerability (gone in his most recent work) remained in his vocals. This combination, along with generous helpings of horns and piano is how the album kicks off with the track The Morning Paper. The music mirrors the subject matter, sounding a bit like dawn breaking, the piano in particular here is quite lovely. Callahan’s vocals on this one sound a little ‘generic singer-songwriter’. Things get a little darker with Blood Red Bird, where Callahan retreats to his electric guitar and his lower register for a somewhat brooding number.

Red Apples is a pretty sparse gothic dirge featuring mainly piano as he sings about going “down to the river to meet the widow” and sleeping “in her black arms for a century”. I Was a Stranger picks up the tempo and the country influence with prominent steel guitar. To Be of Use is as vulnerable as Callahan gets as he sings in a high register for him over gently plucked guitar, with some borderline disturbing lyrics: “most of my fantasies are of to be of use.” Red Apple Falls, the title track continues with the ‘red’ theme in the song titles, and combines some warm countrified music reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's Amelia, again led by steel guitar, with harrowing subject matter (“when I think about my brother dying and my parents trying to slowly do themselves in”). You almost feel like you’re intruding, eavesdropping on a private catharsis.

Ex-Con lightens the mood, an almost jaunty, trumpet led song backed with some gentle synths, though lyrically it’s far from light, this time singing about kidnap and abduction, Inspirational sounds like a country song written by Lou Reed, strange to say as he hasn’t recorded any country music to my knowledge, before the final number, Finer Days, which is sparse enough featuring mainly bass and guitar and some muted horn. The atmosphere of this track is like the coda to the album, taking the musical themes from The Morning Paper and putting a nice twist on them to resolve the album.

Avoid this one like the plague if you’re a country music hater.