Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Album Review: Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love

At this point in 2005 Bill Callahan had fully excised the ‘rock’ from Smog’s music. This album is not a radical departure from previous ones, however, Bill’s voice has completely lost any residual weediness, and the music is kind of rootsy, and not ‘lo-fi’ at all. Possibly around now he had realised that he was actually quite good, and here he sings with more confidence than ever before.

Palimpest sounds quite bleak, in a good way, with a gingerly plucked guitar and Callahan’s blacker-than-black vocals combining for a fine little tune, although at less than 3 minutes it’s a little short, leaving this listener wanting more. The album settles into its groove with Say Valley Maker, which like many of the tracks here ambles along in an unhurried fashion, with deftly plucked guitars and brushed drums.

The Well is faster, with a fairly simple repeating guitar figure and some almost jaunty fiddle. There’s a real spring in the step of this one, with a change of pace here and there for good measure. Rock Bottom Riser is the emotional heart of the album. It sounds like an instant classic, with a simple descending guitar pattern and a great vocal from Bill. There’s some lovely piano by Joanna Newsom round the edges of this one.

I Feel Like The Mother of the World comes next featuring what sounds to me like banjo in a fairly unstructured song, that works nonetheless. In The Pines is a cover of an old folk song, and it’s an interesting version in that rather than a straight cover version he sings kind of around and off the beat, supported by some eerie whistling and fiddle.

Drinking at the Dam is a kind of calm, relaxed song with plenty of room to breathe in it. I first heard this when I was driving away from Dublin, listening to the radio on a Sunday morning. I remember how calm it was and how it perfectly reflected a quiet Sunday on the roads, and also how much I hoped the signal of the radio would last till the end of the song (was well outside Dublin). Musically it is quite an airy track, with a little guitar here, a little piano there, and some lovely wordless ‘aah’ backing vocals which really make the song. There’s a great line about “for the first part of my life I thought women had orange skin”.

The playing is really very fine on this album, which Bill Callahan produced himself and did a fine job, with each instrument given room to do its own unhurried thing. Later on the album I’m New Here is another idiosyncratic track, consisting solely of plucked guitar strings and a boastful lyric: “met a woman in a bar, I told her I was hard to get to know and near impossible to forget.” Her response? “She said I had an ego on me the size of Texas!”

The album alternately evokes cold clear days and hot sticky ones. Not quite sure how the music achieves this! It’s one of the finer Smog albums, though it’s light years away from the 90s Smog albums like Doctor Came At Dawn and Red Apple Falls.