April 3, 2003

Test Spin: Smog

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Much like his brother-in-alias Willy Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), Billy Callahan (a.k.a. Smog) seems to struggle with the compromise between a sardonic sense of humor and a self-appointed role as dark enigma of the indie world. He seems settled in the enigma niche — hell, he dated Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) — but juggling his ponderous persona with his wry wit has yielded mixed results. At his best he sings songs like “Dress Sexy at My Funeral” from 2000’s Dongs of Sevotion; at his worst he borders on pretentiousness. Callahan’s latest is similarly hit or miss. It’s certainly not an advisable point of entry for newcomers, but it is still essential for those already converted to the House of Smog.

Frequent collaborator Jim O’Rourke’s recent work provides an apt touchstone for Supper, from its sarcastic lyricism to its mix of lush instrumentation and minimal arrangements. “Feather by Feather” opens the 9-song set with wafting pedal-steel and Sarabeth Tucek’s detached vocals, both fitting compliments to Callahan’s baritone/monotone delivery. The song evokes a single scene — two crows fighting in mid-air — much like Lambchop mastermind Kurt Wagner’s poetic observations of the seemingly mundane. A tale of fantasized infidelity, “Morality” boasts some of Callahan’s best lines to date, but fails to pair them with a worthy melody or musical accompaniment, as if Callahan ran out of creativity after penning the album’s lyrics. This is not to say that Supper doesn’t have its moments. “Truth Serum” and “Our Anniversary” are stunning glimpses at Callahan’s fertile mental and musical lives, and the controlled chaos of “Driving” is hypnotically surreal. Still, Supper leaves one a bit dissatisfied, waiting for dessert.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas