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Artist: Smog

Album: Supper

Label: Drag City

Review date: Apr. 7, 2003

We’re in the midst of a new (Smog) epoch. Those fractured and fuzzy home recording days now seem so distant that, if not for last fall’s retrospective reminder Accumulation: None, they might just as easily belong to some other band. You may remember the first big shift – when the cello opening of Wild Love’s “Bathysphere” melted away all memory of tape hiss and began a period of full instrumental backing and beefed-up production values. Then there was The Doctor Came At Dawn, a sabbatical into an even deeper abyss of numbing paranoia and naked despair, and a little later Knock Knock, with its redemption arriving in the form of children’s choirs and knowing smirks.

Cut ahead a few years: Bill Callahan added those pesky parentheses just prior to the release of 2002’s Rain on Lens, but Supper only solidifies what we suspected from the moment he first tore into that muscular riff on “Song” – rather than shrinking behind punctuation, now (Smog)’s got bulwarks protecting his good name, and he sounds more comfortable in his shoes than ever before. On Rain on Lens, this comfort level lent the best tracks an aura of frank confidence, but it made the worst ones feel like he wasn’t quite trying hard enough. Supper has a similar air of cool detachment, but those shoes have since changed to boots; Callahan plays something of the dry, cutting cowboy on this record and it works well for him – better than his Rain face, though not altogether different from it.

Supper opens with the subdued interplay of guitar, Hammond organ, and pedal steel, and Callahan’s somber baritone puts us quickly on familiar terrain. “Feather by Feather” centers on a duet with vocalist Sarabeth Tucek, and though her voice isn’t particularly noteworthy, the way that she and Callahan quietly stagger their lines by a half-beat, enacting a sort of narcotized brawl, is both comic and affecting. “It’s crow vs. crow / A brawl in mid-air” he drawls, but the fight takes place in a kind of dream time, with the tender pedal steel marking the muffled impact of slow, pillowy punches. “Butterflies Drowned in Wine,” coming next, is at least sequenced nicely. The song is centered on a swaggering, bluesy riff, and Callahan announces up front that he wants none of the pussyfooting of the previous track’s spat: “I’m headed into town / Where up is up and down is down / None of this fumbling around.” Callahan’s got a knack for settling on clipped images and working them over and over through repetition, transforming them into something grand. He tries it here with “Butterflies butterflies / Drowned in wine,” but the bluesy guitar and the chiming harmony unfortunately suck the fragile butterfly down like a whirlpool.

The churning, blues-rock approach is a recent (Smog) development, and too often it overwhelms the feeling of cracked intimacy that makes him great. There are other times, however, when it really works. “Morality,” is one moment where the snarling guitar and propulsive drumming do ample justice to the refrain. “What would my wife say,” Callahan wonders, “If I was married?” Songs like “Morality” should be enough to make most novices throw their hands up. It’s built on a guitar line not much different from a slowed-down “Sister Ray” riff, but in a few choice words Callahan’s got nailed that baffling Puritan impulse that unseats gratification, delivered casually and without any trace of a knowing smile. The guitar muscle sometimes leaves Callahan sounding uncomfortably cocky, but his casual delivery is a slight-of-hand for knife-sharp lyrics. In the grand tradition of all great (Smog) songs, he’ll have you leaning in one direction while he floors you from another (“Hey, is that ‘Baby Got Back’ he’s singing?”).

At the album’s center are two light, loping songs -– strong, but not exemplary (Smog). “Vessel in Vain” is a somber confessional, but one that circumscribes the naked directness of past songs like “To Be of Use” or “The Orange Glow of a Stranger’s Living Room.” “Truth Serum” waltzes elegantly on Jim White’s feathery drumming, and Callahan musters enough baritone bravado to sing, “Honey, I love you and that’s all you need to know-whoa-whoa.” Ryan Hembrey adds some nice cello accents and Tucek plays the call-and-response Nancy Sinatra to Callahan’s Lee Hazelwood – it’s hokey and strangely earnest all at once.

Callahan saves his best moments for near the end. “Our Anniversary” is built on a gentle but taut bass-line, and when the soft guitar part kicks up it’s both minimal and magnificent. He weaves a quiet tale of being cooped up by a relationship’s obligations on a steaming summer night, when “The bullfrogs / And everything that can sing is singing / Its mating song.” The heartbeat of the guitar and bass is quietly yearning, and Callahan softly considers his options: “To hotwire and hightail crosses my mind.” Then, somehow, the repetitive instrumentation changes its tone to something more conciliatory, and the song winds down with the compromise of a clumsy sexual encounter and cheers for next year. “We are far from flowers / Cut and dried” Callahan admits, “So let us thrive / Just like the weeds / We can curse sometimes.”

“Driving” is the album’s bravest and most surprisingly effective moment. It’s built on one repeated lyric: “And the rain washes the price / Off of our windshield,” and Callahan’s voice melts into Tucek’s over a glimmering, quietly chaotic shower of guitar, banjo, percussion, and recorded fireworks. The effect is one of hopeful rebirth – the baptism of a new-used car on a warm summer night – and the sounds all swirl and pool together with mysterious beauty.

There aren’t quite enough surprises like “Driving” on Supper, but there are more than enough strong moments, sprung from the most recent version of the (Smog) mold. Supper is an advised purchase for even the casual (Smog) fan and, if history holds, sometime in the near future we should be able to expect a nice EP for dessert.

By Nathan Hogan

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