Album Reviews

Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love

(Domino) UK release date: 30 May 2005

A River Ain’t Too Much Too Love is Bill Callahan’s 12th LP underthe Smog moniker. He has been producing material of bleak grace as farback as 1988 cassette-only release Macrame Gunplay. The latest offeringwas recorded in 10 days at Willie Nelson‘s studio in Texas and isself-produced. Callahan changed his working methods on the new record.He had written all the material before entering the studio where he hasoften composed on the hoof before. The songs are loosely based aroundthe theme of rivers.

Callahan’s voice is an enquired taste, a low baritone croon thatrecalls the bard of Broadway Leonard Cohen or a countrified LouReed. Smog has at times been linked in with the alt country movementbut the sound on this record is bleak and harsh modernist folk. Itcontains none of the melodic flourishes or sunshine harmonies that coursethrough the majority of Americana. The songs are stripped down to theirbare bones – a plucked or strummed acoustic guitar, brushed drums, hi-hatsplashes and unfussy bass provide the settings for the songs. It’s thebleak barren badlands of the America. Iron And Wine and WillOldham in his various guises traverse similar terrain.

The album seems to be bound by lyrical themes of travelling,childhood and family ties. He mentions his sisters and his mum and dad withaffection on more than one occasion. Childhood and youthful memoriessurface on The Well, In The Pines and Drinking At The Dam.

It’s fitting that On Rock Bottom Riser Callaghan sings “I bought thisguitar to pledge my love to you”, as it’s the sound of his guitarcarries that the LP and infuses the record with a sense of rustic contemplation.The delicate finger-picked melodies are like dust dancing in morningsunlight; John Fahey jamming with Woody Guthrie. Slight, beautifuland as fragile as brightly painted eggshells.

The devil is in the detail, so although the songs sound sparse andempty, there are wonderfully gentle surprises woven into the textures.The piano notes and descending bassline that add colour to Rock BottomRiser and the fiddle that whistles through In The Pines are examples ofwhere Callaghan’s skills as an arranger shine.

The album is also not just one-paced. Say Valley Maker isdriven along by The Dirty Three‘s Jim White’s shifting drumpatterns. Starting out slowly and building to a marching pace, the addition ofan aching cello refrain and blissful backing vocals lift the song and its themes of redemption and rebirth. It’s aptly summed up whenCallaghan sings “bury me in fire and I am gonna phoenix”.

In The Pines, a rewrite of Leadbelly‘s Where Did You SleepLast Night, refines the blues as a folk memory both in sound and subjectmatter. I Feel Like The Mother of The World strides forth on jangling guitarstrings, while opening track Palimpsest’s guitar chords chime like a clock athigh noon. Drinking At The Dam revolves around a ghostly vocal clip and astrummed acoustic guitar. It’s the tale of cutting school, drinking warmbeers and yelling abuse, it could be a Bruce Springsteen songrewritten by his country cousin.

In all, this album is a brave and stark exercise in pared down musicianship and songwriting that will take up residence in your brain if you let it in.

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Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love