Consisting of the peripatetic Bill Callahan and a shifting cast of backing musicians, Smog is an unheralded pioneer of the lo-fi movement, with all the opportunity for intimate self-revelation and solipsistic self-indulgence the genre offers. The music is shot through with a pinched melancholy that more than occasionally turns bitter and veers unpredictably between almost painful candor and self-parody. And Smog appears to have been an influence on bands such as Pavement and Guided by Voices, if not for its production philosophy then at least for song titles like “Olive Drab Spectre” and “A Jar of Sand.”
A one-man job recorded at “Dumpster Porta-studio,” the damaged and drumless Sewn to the Sky echoes the Residents, Captain Beefheart and the soundtrack to Eraserhead. Callahan’s repetitive, alien guitar riffs form bleak soundscapes, with occasional vocals deeply submerged in the distorted murk. “Garb” is just a two-note bass figure and some kooky pickup noises; on “Fruit Bats,” Callahan intones something about “a symphony of fruit bats rapping on my window pane.” Suffused with the vague gray atmospherics suggested by the band’s name, Sewn to the Sky is primitive and promising.
The recording is still willfully crude and that Eraserhead vibe lives on, but Forgotten Foundation finds Callahan getting more song-oriented — more traditional arrangements, more vocals, more melody. Still, tracks like the shaggy dog story of “Evil Tyrant” are more the rule. While he manages to attain a genuinely forlorn ambience, the sketchy approach eventually becomes tedious.
With cello, violin, acoustic guitar and banjo leading the mostly acoustic way, the spare, folky Julius Caesar is by far Smog’s best yet. Callahan’s songwriting is far more focused than ever before, even if the songs display a distinctly split personality, veering between elation (“When You Walk”) and depression (“Your Wedding”), although mostly the latter. Highlights include the gleeful, brilliant “I Am Star Wars!” (based on a loop of the intro from “Honky Tonk Women”), the touching cellos on the instrumental “One Less Star” and “37 Push Ups,” if only for the immortal line, “I feel like Travis Bickle/And I’m listening to ‘Highway to Hell’.”
The six-song Burning Kingdom breaks Smog’s lo-fi policy with even more listenable production and fleshed-out arrangements. On “My Shell,” heavy drums cut a clear path through the thicket of electric guitar and cello; Callahan’s voice is a marvel of baleful alienation. There’s the relentlessly minor-key psychodrama “My Family,” which begins “Mother is smoking pot in the bathroom/I can hear her butt squeaking on the tub/As the water grows cold around her legs” and “The Desert,” wherein Callahan intones “I’m crawling through the desert without water or love” to the accompaniment of funereal organ. Cheery stuff.
The clearly produced Wild Love finds Callahan in an even more morose frame of mind than usual. With a relentless, bitter pessimism that is sometimes hard to take seriously, his somber voice scuds over minor keys and drum machines, depicting an unhappy childhood (“Bathysphere,” as apt a metaphor for his self-absorbed viewpoint as any), bitter romantic disappointments and the futility of life in general: “Wild love/Someone shot down my wild love,” are the complete lyrics to the minute-and-a-half title track. Amid such despair, the brilliant “Prince Alone in the Studio” (yes, the Purple One), underscored by a grandiosely melancholic backing track, becomes a self-referential metaphor for the tragic art-vs.-love pathos of a hermetic existence.
Kicking a Couple Around leads off with a solo acoustic guitar performance of “Your New Friend” from a 1995 BBC broadcast; Callahan sounds like Jonathan Richman on spoiled downers as he anxiously rues a love’s new circumstances. The other three whispery tracks, recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini, are no more extroverted or upbeat. Still, “The Orange Glow of a Stranger’s Living Room” lets some lovely picking and piano pierce the warm gloom of his abiding displacement.