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Old 01-31-2007, 11:41 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Smog - Julius Caesar (1993, Drag City)




Tracklisting
1. Strawberry Rash
2. Your Wedding
3. 37 Push Ups
4. Stalled On The Tracks
5. One Less Star
6. Golden
7. When You Walk
8. I Am Star Wars!
9. Connections
10. When The Power Goes Out
11. Chosen One
12. What Kind Of Angel
13. Stick In The Mud


Review
Yet more proof that America tends to churn out the most idiosyncratic, individual and unique artists of any country on Earth (as well as the best ones in my opinion), Bill Callahan is often considered one of the most important individuals involved in the American indie music movement of the '90s. For good reason too, the music of Smog is generally what people think of when they think of indie - idiosyncratic, wilfully difficult, obscure, challenging, disturbing, emotional and bleak, he is in many ways a Captain Beefheart for the modern day. His songs are about as uncommercial as you will find anywhere but this is simply what happens when an artist such as Bill Callahan writes his songs without worrying about radio play.

With Julius Caesar, Callahan's songwriting went beyond that of the experimental cassette only albums he had recorded in the '80s, as well as his debut album proper Sewn to the Sky. On those efforts Callahan was heavily influenced by Jandek, the obscure Texas songwriter with about 40 albums to his name and just as many fans. Importantly Julius Caesar is the sound of Callahan coming into his own, his first attempts at writing songs that are well written without conforming to the rules of pop music. For the first time the guitars are in tune and the songs seem to go somewhere but within this context Julius Caesar is an unbelieveably uncommercial record. Most of the songs are short (two of them being under 90 seconds in length and only one of them exceeding the 5 minute mark) and the album wheres its lo-fi aesthetic on its sleeve proudly. The music is minimalist as are the lyrics, epitomised by the ultra-ultra musical and lyrical minimalism of "I Am Star Wars!" The song comprises a couple of Rolling Stones samples (a prime example of sampling done on a budget) and Callahan singing the nonsensical phrase "I am Star Wars today, I am no longer English grey" with an instantly memorable, even catchy melody to boot.

All of the songs on this record are lyrically bleak and pessimistic. Enhancing this feeling of darkness are the unconventional melodies. Callahan's take on song structure is an experimental one, often ignoring melody altogether in order to say what he has to when he wants to say it. At times the record feels like a thirty five minute version of "My Mummys Dead" by John Lennon, the short lo-fi ditty that closes his Plastic Ono Band album. Most of the songs lack a chorus or identifiable hook and are much more about the feeling and atmosphere they create. Songs like "Your Wedding" and "Stalled on the Tracks" seem to be suggesting threat and menace, a terrible event that never occurs. One of Callahan's great talents as a lyricist has been to imply feelings and ideas in a subtle fashion rather than being obvious about it, a talent many songwriters appear to lack unfortunately.

My favourite song on the album is also probably the most tuneful, though it is still uncommercial and bleak. "What Kind of Angel", with its slide guitar noise and stomp along rhthym coupled with something actually resembling a chorus, suggests a more conventional take on songwriting than the rest of the album. Forget any such ideas though, it's still as stark, dark and fractured as anything else on the record... it's just that it seems more user friendly. "When the Power Goes Out" features a garage rock-esque musical backing with an electric guitar being played through a cheap and nasty sounding amplifier (and believe me, it sounds cheap as hell) and lyrics about robbing a grocery store. "Chosen One" is also a personnal favourite as is "37 Pushups" (the first song I heard from the album and the reason I bought the cd), a tale of extreme alienation and despair sets to a jerky minimalist guitar riff and little else.

If great art exists in a world of its own, this is a world I sure wouldnt want to live in. Nice place to visit... I just wouldn't want to live there.
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Old 01-31-2007, 12:00 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Smog are one of those bands that I keep saying to myself I have to check out but never actually get around to it.
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Old 01-31-2007, 10:08 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Nice reveiw Moon Pix, I really love the term "wilfully difficult", thats classy....*borrows it*
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Old 02-01-2007, 02:40 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Urban Hatemonger View Post
Smog are one of those bands that I keep saying to myself I have to check out but never actually get around to it.
You should, Bill's a great songwriter.
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