(Copyright © 1999-2023 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Sewn To The Sky, 7/10
Forgotten Foundation, 7/10
Julius Caesar, 8/10
Burning Kingdom, 7/10 (EP)
Wild Love, 7.5/10
Kicking A Couple Around, 6/10 (EP)
The Doctor Came At Dawn, 6/10
Red Apple Falls, 7/10
Knock Knock , 6/10
Dongs Of Sevotion, 6.5/10
Rain On Lens , 5/10
Supper , 6/10
A River Ain't Too Much To Love (2005), 6/10
Woke On A Whaleheart (2007), 5/10
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (2009), 6/10
Apocalypse (2011), 5.5/10
Dream River (2013), 5.5/10
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (2019), 6/10

(Clicka qua 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.

Full bio.
(Translated from my original Italian text by Nicole Zimmerman and proof-edited by Matteo Russo)

Smog, the project of singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, was one of the voices that in the 1990s redefined the concept of "solo artist" 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 to produce the music. Beyond the short, absurd interludes, where almost anything was permitted (and which reached a high watermark 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 nursery rhymes, virtually without any musical sounds that one can call as such and which border on the insane, such as Fruit Bats and Puritan Work Ethic, dwell in the realm that is inhabited by characters like Wild Man Fisher. Another one of his specialties was creating a song around an unusual rhythm and letting that be its focus, like the asthmatic strumming in Polio Shimmy, or the out-of-tune rhythmic styles of the eponymous track Smog. Only in a couple of instances did Smog attempt to communicate: Peach Pie and A Jar Of Sand put the depression found in the sound into words as well. 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 rules of communication.

A modest and shy character, Smog took the sidelines in the world of pageantry. After the EP Floating (Drag City), with the succinct odes of Red Apples and Turb, the album Forgotten Foundation (Drag City, 1992) was recorded (alone as usual) finally with regular songs like Burning Kingdom and Your Dress; but also with the usual carnival of absurd melodies and even more absurd accompaniment of: solo guitar (Filament), solo percussion (Evil Tyrant), or even 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 worthy of David Peel in This Insane Cop. Elsewhere the instrumental tracks make history as well: 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 borders on psychedelic garage-rock. Everything about this music is exacted in the name of minimum means and minimum effect. 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. His abhorrent private stories are unparalleled  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 marching band of bums 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 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 bored 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 the culmination of Callahan’s existential melancholy.The album conserved the enigmatic characteristics of the preceding ones. It could be understood that Smog was not happy, but one could not understand what Smog wanted to communicate. The meaning of sonatas for cello like One Less Star, steeped in emotion, or, to return to the demented origins of the soloist, of Connections was at least hermetic. 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 records made with an actual group and featured professional arrangements, which further perfected the “dramaturgical” technique of Smog. Preceded by a long introduction of unnerving distortions, My Shell created, through a raga trance, a 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 mundaneness 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, over which nervous Television-esque guitar figures play, and the singer drapes a litany, like that of Cure. The long, painful tangent of Prince Alone In The Studio relied on a clever symphonic counterpoint, like if early King Crimson were performing the music of Nick Drake.

Several miniatures reduced the vocals to the bare minimum, as if they came from one his deathbed, and the instrumental part is accentuated to the absolute maximum. Echoes in the distance, saudade 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, present the group as (ascetic) disciples of Brian Eno. The dissonant chime of Goldfish Bowl directly revealed the influence of Michael Nyman in the pressing programs of the orchestra.

Only in the nightmare of It’s Rough and in the painful ballad Be Hit did the rock melody and instrumentation regain the upper hand.

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 was Callahan who steered the course of the album, 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 early Leonard Cohen. Your New Friend was more an affectionate bedroom conversation than a song.

The Doctor Came At Dawn (Drag City, 1996), once again played entirely alone, disappointed listeners, and felt more like leftovers. Smog, perhaps distracted by the success of Beck, wastes 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 hallucinatory stasis 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 modest blues of all time.

Red Apple Falls (Drag City, 1997) is an album of a classic artist: with an awareness of having created a style but still having room within that style to live and keep creating.

The Morning Paper could have been the soundtrack to a documentary of the ordinary person, recited with the tone of Donovan over a guitar rhythm and between the sol-fas of a French horn. In the absolute 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 evanescent colors, without air, perhaps underground. At his most funereal, he is unparalleled. 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 (unusually lively) Hawaiian theme on guitar.

Only Cohen at his most philosophical, immersed in stories of failure and fatalism, could reach the emotional heights of Blood Red Bird and Red Apple Falls, or the existential country-rock  a la Gram Parsons (slowened and flattened out) on Inspirational. Callahan even allows himself to imitate the disenchanted tones and light boogie of Lou Reed in Ex-Con, where the French horn and Hammond piano duet and interplay. He was an ingenious musician 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 between which his work oscillated: 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. Both the attention to the orchestration and 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 the litany of Oh Superman (Laurie Anderson) complete with a string section repeating a minimalist pattern. This could not be farther from his habitual style.

Smog has composed an album full of surprises. The story of No Dancing is "told" in David Bowie's decadent tone over a hard-rock riff, but the refrain is sung by a choir of children over a marching band's loud accompaniment. 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 moments. Teenage Spaceship resuscitates Nick Drake's soft melisma and gloomy atmospheres. Sweet Treat sinks in existential void, two graveyards deeper than Chris Isaak. The album takes on a meaning as soon as Callahan decides to withdraw into himself. This is his true ego, or at least the one where Callahan is able to express himself best.

Unfortunately, Knock Knock tends to "rock" too much. The most rocking racks 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.

(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

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 repetition). 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 Neil Hagerty.

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 Dongs, 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 tracks.

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 Joanna Newsom on piano, 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 Morphine. 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 in the 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, Callahan sounds 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.

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