A River Ain't Too Much to Love

(Drag City; 2005)

By Sean Ford | 15 November 2007

After releasing Red Apple Falls, Knock, Knock and Dongs of Sevotion back-to-back-to-back, Bill Callahan seemed ready to take over the world. Each album upped the ante on the previous, each was filled with Smog’s trade-marked beautiful arrangements and introspective songs filled with candor and pitch-black humor. The songs ranged from ballads about prison guards ruminating on freedom to anthems about sexual predators in supermarkets to tone poems hoping for a death that brings a permanent smile.

Now, Smog never got too huge or anything, but those three watershed albums led to some intense scrutiny and focus on the personality that filled the discs with their dark genius teetering on the edge of some personal abyss. Perhaps in response to this, Callahan’s next album, 2001’s Rain On Lens, infamously featured the parenthetical (smog), a clear attempt to lessen the focus on the personality and guard it somehow (i.e. rain on the lens). It led to a sometimes interesting, often repetitive and vague album. 2003’s Supper, while far more engaging, still featured the parentheses and a certain happy malaise. It seemed Smog had lost his rudder in a way.

Smog’s newest is parentheses free, and as an album is actually somewhere in-between the minimalism of Rain On Lens, the folk-stylings of Supper and the epic quality of his earlier triumvirate. It is an album that seems to shed light upon the direction of his last two albums, while forging a reconciling of sorts with his cold-blooded old times.

Opener “Palimpsest” is Smog at his absolute finest. The song is cold, mournful acoustic minimalism, peppered by Callahan’s deadpan baritone, recalling Red Apple’s “Blood Red Bird.” As Callahan intones, “Why’s everybody looking at me/ like a southern bird/ that stayed north too long,” it becomes clear that Smog has decided to finally move to the country, as the song signals an exit from the city that colored his excellent trio. Fortunately, it’s also a return to form.

“Say Valley Maker” continues the traveling home narrative, this time to a perfectly imperfect love, starting with a repetitive, simple acoustic chord progression that builds to a luxurious coda as Callahan sings: “There is no love/ where there is no bramble/ there is no love/ on the hacked away plateau…oh, I cantered out here/ now I’m galloping back.” Frequent cohort and excellent drummer Jim White joins the previously spare song and guides it to an excellent, stuttering, rocking conclusion. Speaking of guests, Callahan calls on fellow Drag City standout Joanna Newsom to lend her piano chops in the somber thank you letter “Rock Bottom Riser.” It’s another strong effort. “I Feel Like a Mother to the World” is a short, catchy song that’s all quickly chimed strings with some superb drumming rumbling at the very bottom of the mix.

The rest of the album dips its toe further into the country stylings of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash (in fact, the album was recorded at Nelson’s Pedernales Studios). “The Well” features a rollicking country-type ditty complete with accompanying violin and lyrics about staring into a well. “In the Pines” is a deliberate ballad complete with whistling that wears a little thin. “Running and Loping” and “Drinking at the Dam” are songs that are at once pitch-perfect country and distinctly Smog.

As the album gallops to a close with the majestic “Let Me See the Colts,” it’s clear that Smog has moved toward something different than the brilliance of the holy trinity. The cryptic, empty songs of Rain on Lens and wandering, upbeat folk-tunes of Supper have been usurped by a renewed focus and direction. While not exactly a challenger to the throne of the trinity, it’s enough to give fans hope that such an album may not be far away. Twelve albums into an intriguing career, there’s not much more you can ask for.