Smog Alert

A onetime pioneer of the home-recorded, bedroom confessional, lo-fi movement that garnered so much underground media attention in the early-to-mid-'90s, Bill Callahan--nom de musique, Smog--has over the years morphed into one of the smartest, most underrated and most misunderstood songwriters around.

Callahan's early recordings (his first goes back to 1988) were choppy, fragmented segments of songs, cut and pasted all the way, often to annoying effect, but at times sublime. The self-issued cassettes got more coherent as time crept by, but it was Callahan's signing to Chicago's eclectic and supreme-tasted Drag City Records--which has issued releases from Pavement to John Fahey, Royal Trux to Stereolab, Palace to Scott Walker--that stirred him to lean toward his own skewed version of conventional songcraft.

1993's Julius Caesar was his first true revelation, marrying the knowledge gained from years of fucking around with his four-track with the wisdom to write a song that was affecting, in the true sense of the word. Highlights on that release include "Your Wedding" ("I'm gonna be drunk / So drunk / At your wedding"); "37 Pushups," a song whose musical accompaniment is a single, hypnotically repetitive banjo, with lyrics equally as unnerving ("37 pushups / In a winter-rate seaside motel / I feel like Travis Bickle / I'm listening to Highway to Hell / It's a shitty little tape / I taped off the radio"); "I Am Star Wars!" in which absurd lyrics are overdriven on top of a looped snippet of the opening riff of "Honky Tonk Women"; and the achingly gorgeous "Chosen One," which documents the moment of realization that a relationship has crumbled, and which was later covered by the Flaming Lips.

These examples of Callahan's songcraft are chosen intentionally, in an attempt to dig Callahan out of the pigeonhole to which he's most often relegated: that of the mopey, narcissistic, melodramatically dark writer of songs that plod along at a rate that makes Spain sound like Slayer in comparison. While those are indeed traits of some Smog material, the quantity overlooked in this equation is Callahan's bizarre and misunderstood sense of humor. And though it is only one element of Callahan's songs, it is still essential to what Smog is all about.

This is, after all the same guy who wrote two songs, one called "A Hit," the other "Be Hit," issued a couple of years apart ("A" was issued exclusively on a seven-inch single; "Be" is on 1995's Wild Love). The former is the charmingly self-deprecating one with the loping groove, a sharp, albeit tongue-in-cheek tally of his lowly role on the rock totem pole: "It's not gonna be a hit / So why even bother with it? ... I'll never be a Bowie, I'll never be an Eno / I'll only ever be a Gary Numan." The latter is the exact flipside, a devastatingly simple and brutal treatise on the crippling and lingering effects of abuse, still couched in the darkest of black humor: "Every girl I've ever loved / has wanted to be hit / And every girl I've ever loved / has left me / 'cause I wouldn't do it ... It seems my sensitive touch / can be given by / any old schmuck, all right now."

Equally as bizarrely affecting is Wild Love's tour de force, a beautiful, string-laden track seemingly comically titled "Prince Alone in the Studio," about the reclusive and notoriously sex-crazed musician, which ultimately reveals itself as a heart-wrenching study of devastating loneliness.

(True story: Several years ago, after a Smog show at Stinkweeds in Tempe, I approached Callahan, who was sitting expressionless on a drum stool. I introduced myself and tried to engage him in a conversation. He remained silent and stared straight ahead without even acknowledging me. Some have written such behavior off as pure weirdoism; others say he's simply an asshole. I contend that in the end, it doesn't really matter. I continue to put dollars in his pocket because of the art, not the artist.)

Over the years the enigmatic and reclusive singer has collaborated with genius-nutball Lisa Carver and just-as-nutty Cynthia Dall, was romantically linked with the emotionally fragile singer-songwriter Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power, who later covered his tune "Bathysphere"), was included on the tastemaker soundtrack of Hi Fidelity and relocated from San Francisco to Chicago. His output has at once grown increasingly accessible and complex (the once-rare string section is now commonplace), though it remains light years away from the co-opted realm of MTV or commercial radio.

Smog's latest release is Rain on Lens, another record that sounds utterly coherent to longtime fans, if "weird" to fans of the aforementioned cultural throat-crammers. If you have to ask, you'll never understand.