During one of our podcast episodes, we were discussing Palace Brothers and one of the guests said he reminded him of Smog. When I first listened to Smog – the earlier, weirder, more lo fi Smog – I had no idea what he was talking about. But listening to this record I really, really do. And, um, that’s not a good thing.
My problem with early Smog is that he feels very much in line with so much of what was going on in indie rock/bedroom music/lo fi: when in doubt, release something. Most of these artists don’t have an editor – they often produce their own recordings and sometimes release them too – and they don’t always have a lot of discretion when it comes to putting out music that wouldn’t necessarily make the grade if more people were involved. That’s my issue with early Smog.
That is not my issue here. It seems like Callahan has really refined his process. This is both good and bad: he’s a lot less creative (at least in terms of the finished product) but he’s a lot more refined. Depending upon what you like, that could be a good thing. It does seem like he has grown as a songwriter. And his new habit of fleshing out his ideas into fully formed songs is really nice.
There’s something of the wild abandon of early Smog that is missing but, given that I don’t love early Smog, it’s really not that big a problem for me. Yes, he’s more restrained and more polished, but he also appears to know where he’s going.
Most of the time, anyway. My biggest problem with this record is the end of the album: multiple tracks sound very much like sub Palace/Bonnie Prince Billy – the songs aren’t as good nor is the aesthetic. But the vibe – and even Callahan’s voice! – is very similar. This is a problem for me because I am a big Will Oldham fan – and heard him first – but also because Oldham had been doing his shtick for nearly a decade at this point. It’s kind of weird for someone as creative and inventive as Bill Callahan undoubtedly is to suddenly just record a bunch of songs which appear to worship a contemporary. (I suspect they know each other so maybe it wasn’t on purpose…)
But everything before those songs is considerably more agreeable to me than early Smog, if only because Callahan seems to have refined his methods. (I still don’t love him as a songwriter, don’t really find him funny and kind of which he’d gone the other way with his career: weirder rather than more accessible.)