Monday, April 16, 2007

You Have to be Careful With the Essential

It's somehow not surprising that Lars at Spurious, one of our more enigmatic and literary bloggers, should be attracted to the music of Jandek, one of our more mysterious musicians. I have but one of the approximately 50 Jandek releases, but there is a hard-to-describe something--at once distancing and inviting--something which I can sense may draw me in further, though I haven't yet made the needed effort. I really know very little at all about him or his music.

Lars says:
Sometimes I think there's nothing I want to hear except for Jandek and nothing I want to think about except for Jandek. Everything else is pointless, non-essential. I listen to Comets on Fire and Espers and Boris and all that sort of thing. It's good, all good, but not essential. I listen to Mark Kozelek, which is nearly essential, and Bill Callahan and Michael Head - all very good, close to essential, but not quite essential. But you have to be careful with the essential, not to come too close to it. You need distance. You need time and space set aside. Sit down on the sofa. Do nothing else. Listen to nothing. Just Jandek. Just that: Jandek.
This more than anything I've yet read makes me want to spend some time with this music. But I come here, really, to talk about Bill Callahan, otherwise known as Smog. Because, for me, Bill Callahan's music is essential. I have and listen to a lot of music, but if I were forced to get rid of the bulk of my collection, Smog would survive. And if I were further forced to pare down to a tiny select few dozen albums--there would be much Smog remaining.

To Lars the essential requires distance, as well as time and space. The other music he references here can all be found in my collection (Michael Head aside, who I've not heard of), and they along with much else help form my daily soundtrack. But a lot of it is excellent aural wallpaper. Smog I listen to almost every day at work, too, his unlikely words and baritone voice piping in my ear while I'm doing something else, which would seem to not be the optimal use of this kind of essential music. The difference is Smog calls to me at odd other times. Those times when I'm home alone. After midnight. The quiet hours (though much of his music is plenty noisy).

Lately I've been listening continuously to the most recent Smog recording, A River Ain't Too Much To Love. A new album comes out next week credited to "Bill Callahan". Why the switch? Have we seen the last Smog record? Or (smog)? Will it make a difference? When A River Ain't Too Much To Love was released in 2005, I liked it right away, but it's not till recently that it's come to rival the very best of his music, which I consider to be, for example, 1997's Red Apple Falls or 2000's ill-titled Dongs of Sevotion. That my favorite had been ten years ago should not be taken as implying that the man's fallen off. He has not. Rain on Lens, from 2001, and Supper, from 2003, are both full of interesting, prickly music. Not to be ignored if you're interested in looking into Smog. (While we're at it, don't miss the great Wild Love (1995) and The Doctor Came at Dawn (1996), either. Or Knock Knock (1999). Ok. So I'm a fan.)

Reviewers have, with Callahan, all too often fallen prey to the tendency to attribute the opinions and attitudes in the songs, some of which are unsettling, to the man himself--the pitfall, I guess, of the music being the singular vision of one person, in a culture obsessed with personality, conditioned to only take art seriously, somehow, when it's factually true. Not to mention 40 years of confessional singer-songwriters. Callahan distances himself from this by the mere use of the Smog name, of course, but this doesn't stop people. (I can't imagine the adoption of his own name at this late date will do much to prevent this.) But his songs are true, the way art is true, true to themselves, to the singer, to the situation.

Callahan gives us excellent, quotable lines ("Whenever I get dressed up/I feel like an ex-con trying to make good", from "Ex-Con" on Red Apple Falls), but the unexpected grace notes are perhaps more striking. One of my favorite moments is in "Red Apple Falls" itself, when the singer pulls back from singing about the widow who "says it's hard to live/on the lonely version of love I give", reminded of the time his brother died, his parents "slowly trying to do themselves in/inch by inch/day by day/and the telephone ring's/like a banshee wail". This is a slow, dirge-like song, with minimal instrumentation, some acoustic guitar, piano. When the words "banshee wail" are sung, Callahan's voice is subtly louder, punctuating the startling moment.

One of the standout songs on A River Ain't Too Much To Love is "The Well", and it has a moment that has bothered me. As the song begins, over a minimal repeating guitar figure and simple drum pattern, with violin, the singer "could not work/so I threw a bottle into the woods", but he "felt bad for the doe paw/And the rabbit paw" (I love this). He runs into the woods and encounters "an old abandoned well", "With a drip hanging from the bucket still". Periodically the words are punctuated by a more insistent drum beat, which retreats to the original pattern. The singer pulls the boards off the well and stares into the "black black black". Then comes a great touch: "I guess everybody has their own thing/That they yell into a well". He yells his yell, into the black, only to find the drip has dropped onto his back:
I knew if I stood up
That drip would roll down my back
Into no man's land

So I stayed like that
Staring into the black black black
Then comes the line that nearly upends it for me: "Well they say black is all colors at once". Except that they don't. "They" conventionally say white is "all colors at once". I've stumbled on this line since I first heard it nearly two years ago. But I've decided to let it go, not least because he could merely mean that black absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them (oh come on! he could totally mean that!). But more importantly, the idea suits the song. It's true. In the specificity of the moment, it works. He sings:
So I gave it my red rage my yellow streak
The greenest parts of me
And my blues and I knew just what I had to do

I had to turn around and go back
And let that drip roll down my back
And I felt so bad about that

But wouldn't you know
When I turned to go
Another drip was forming
On the bottom of the bucket
And I felt so good about that


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Red Apple Falls remains my favourite. No other LP has the same consistency. And I'm really disappointed in the new one, though it seems churlish to even feel that let alone express it. Still, the first track is magnificent.

I can't get into Jandek at all. Seems false to me.

Richard said...

I agree about the consistency of Red Apple Falls. I think A River Ain't Too Much To Love approaches its consistency, the unnecessary cover of "In the Pines" aside. But just about all the other albums have several amazing songs.

I've heard others express disappointment in the new one, too, which is too bad. But maybe it'll be a grower.

Jandek... I don't know. I'd love to be able to hear what Lars hears in it. But I'm not sure.

Casey said...

I've never heard of any of this stuff -- it's awesome.

Anonymous said...

stumbled over this review googling callahan and the new record - amazed, some brilliant observations, essential and obsession go hand in hand, to me it's Howe Gelb in all his permutations, but the hypnotic quality of callahans voice, the repetetive patterns of his guitar comes close, esp. the live shows of which there are far too few..........and in your profile I see that you're into gaddis as well - looks like I have to check out that jandek - anyway, in case that you are into live recordings you can contact me at chrbeckmannatyahoodotcom