Originally published in The Montclarion Feb. 15, 2001
At their best, most recordings put out by artists between major releases and projects are forgettable or excusable.
In the past, however, Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog) has clearly proven more the exception to that statement than the rule, using a form traditionally known for its bland studio outtakes, predictable concert fare and sub-par unreleased material as a vehicle for breath-taking growth and musical expansion.
For an example, you don’t have to look much further than “Kicking A Couple Around,” [I] an EP whose songs bridged the sound collages and warped pop structure of 1992’s “Forgotten Foundation” [I] and 1995’s “Wild Love” [I] with the acoustic guitar elegies and lyrically driven confessionals of 1996’s “The Doctor Came At Dawn” [I] and 1997’s “Red Apple Falls.” [I]
Where many independent musicians have allowed so-called hiatus recordings to undermine the accomplishments of their major bodies of work, Callahan has crafted minor, private gems and epiphanies out of material that didn’t appear on his more widely known or widely distributed releases.
Unfortunately, his “ ‘Neath The Puke Tree, ” [I] a five-song offering of studio asides and radio sessions that comes only a handful of months after his “Dongs of Sevotion,” [I] is more a mess than a masterpiece.
Where Callahan was emotive, beautifully stark and stripped-down on “Kicking A Couple Around,” [I] here his guitar and voice are rag dolls. With the exception of the sometimes playful and album-closing “Coacheecayoo,” Callahan seems to be projecting onto his newest songs a tired, distant and worn-out version of his former selves.
Earlier work from Smog was deeply entrenched in agonizing displays of emotion, deceptively simple work on acoustic guitar, and a refreshingly no-fi work ethic, but much of “Tree” [I] just sounds lazy. We hear a sometimes sloppy and gravel-voiced rendition of “I Was A Stranger,” a gem from “Red Apple Falls” [I] that was recorded as a radio session and turned into an oddly obligatory exercise in nostalgia.
Reaching even further back into his catalog, Callahan takes “A Jar of Sand” (from 1990’s “Sewn to the Sky” [I]) and subtracts a lot of the rawness and charisma of the original. Though here he stresses a vaguely promising undercurrent of synthesizer and a soft shuffle of chords on electric guitar, the song doesn’t seem fleshed-out or restructured enough to merit revision.
“Your Sweet Entrance,” one of the EPs new compositions, walks slowly to a climax of sorts, only to sadly falter and then fade away.
“Orion Obscured by Stars,” another of “Tree”’s [I] originals, is an under-explored piece that would have been comfortable among the more toned-down songs on “Dongs of Sevotion” [I] or the less distortion-drenched odes on 1999’s “Knock Knock.” [I] Instead of sounding disinterested or worn-out, Callahan’s vocals ring with a wonderfully familiar desperation and longing. Had the song been given time to grow and develop both emotionally and musically, it very well could have been among the better pieces on several of Smog’s more widely distributed releases.
While containing glimpses of what makes Smog so wondrous and devastating in the first place, much the same can be said of most of “ ‘Neath The Puke Tree.” [I]
One can only hope that Callahan’s next project be given the space to breathe and mature into the emotional epics that he has been becoming so renowned for writing and recording.