A couple of years ago I saw Smog on tour. I hadn't really been
a big fan of Bill Callahan before then. I tended to think of
him as being personally responsible for one of the most self-indulgent,
over the top, reeking-of-pot-smoke pieces of lo-fi indie rock
known to man: Evil Tyrant (off Forgotten Foundation,
Smog's 1992 debut). However, the concert back in 1999 (in support
of Knock Knock, an excellent album, which I highly
recommend) opened my eyes. I suddenly appreciated the sense
of melody and mood which Callahan demonstrated in his music;
more importantly, that concert itself was compelling - you didn't
want to get a beer or go to the bathroom for fear of missing
Anyway, I've been waiting for Smog to come back. And finally,
this June they did.
When we got to The Echo Lounge, I was somewhat curious and
hesitant about the opening act, Husky. I hadn't seen them, and
I was fairly sure I hadn't even heard of them. That's
not usually a good sign -- I tend to read a fair amount about
local music, so I'm usually familiar with the bands that are
present on the scene. Therefore, I was a little surprised when
that band took the stage and I realized:
Husky serves me coffee most mornings.
Yup, 4 out of 5 people in this band work at the coffee shop
I frequent. After I realized this little tidbit, I decided to
pay more attention to the band. Surprisingly, they weren't bad.
Sure, their music sounds like that which is inevitably termed
"math rock" - a mostly istrumental sound that's strongly Slint-influenced
(or Slint-damaged, depending on your taste) with some Polvo
thrown in. However, what made them so interesting was their
line-up: guitar, guitar, drums, and keyboards, but no bass.
That isn't to say that there was no bass "part" in the music;
rather the keyboard seemed to support the sound, providing a
strong anchor for the dueling guitars. Admittedly, there were
some flaws in their performance: the drummer/vocalist sang through
this vocoder-like device which not only disguised the words,
but also gave the music a loopy, slightly silly effect. And
it was clear that they were having problems hearing one another
on the stage (well, duh…it was The Echo Lounge), so that some
of the songs seemed a bit incoherent and had ill-defined, somewhat
chaotic ending. But, on the whole, considering it was one of
their first shows (if not the first), it wasn't bad.
In fact, I'd like to see them again if only to see how their
music develops and grows.
After a quick intermission, Bill Callahan (and his backing
musicians) took the stage. I think he wore the same denim jacket
that wore the previous time I saw him. I think he was playing
the same guitar. I think he had the same demeanor. But, it wasn't
the same show.
The first thing I noticed was that, although the backing band
was competent, the musicians seemed to pay more attention to
Callahan's playing than to their own. By this I mean that they
would really cue off of Callahan's riffs, without adding any
touches of their own. While on the surface this would seem to
be a good thing (after all Smog really is Bill Callahan), the
emphasis this placed on Callahan's somewhat rudimentary strumming
highlighted a certain void in his technique. This in turn demonstrated
that most of Callahan's songs sound very very similar: they
use the same chords and melodic structures over and over again.
Similarly, as the second or third song began, I thought, "ooh
he's going to play Hit the Ground Running." Then, when
Callahan began to sing, I realized, no, this was a different
song. If that had only happened once, I would have just shaken
it off with the conclusion that maybe I wasn't as familiar with
Smog's catalog as I thought. And then when that moment recurred
a bit later, I just shrugged and said, "Well everyone recycles
to some extent." However, after the third (and then fourth and
fifth) time, I had to rethink myself: maybe (just maybe) Callahan's
songs really do sound alike when you take them apart. Maybe
underneath all the lyrical melancholy and observations, he only
has a limited palette of musical expression.
Let me tell you, that wasn't a pleasant thought to be having
in the middle of an anticipated concert. But it was in my head,
and it wouldn't be denied. Sure, the show was solid and enjoyable.
In fact, I'd even say it was a good show. Still, somehow, the
luster was off of Smog's performance and the overall effect
they had on me was one of slight disappointment (and perhaps
disillusionment). In the end, I'd probably go see Smog again,
but I doubt I would anticipate it as greatly.