Monday, September 19, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #162 - Smog - A River Ain’t Too Much to Love

Since the early 1990s, Bill Callahan has been creating the kind of idiosyncratic folk-rock that established the brand of his longtime label, Drag City, and built the foundation for the growing influence and popularity of indie rock over the last twenty years. For the bulk of Callahan’s career he recorded and toured as Smog and released eleven albums in thirteen years. With 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Callahan closed out Smog on a high note before retiring the moniker, created a contemporary indie-folk masterpiece, and set a template for wry, evocative songwriting about self-acceptance, loss, and redemption that has served him well for the rest of his career.

The album’s opener, “Palimpsest,” functions as a haunting prologue by setting the stage with spare instrumentation and Callahan’s strong, sonorous voice declaring that he feels like “a southern bird that stayed north too long.” The second song, “Say Valley Maker,” supplies the album’s statement of purpose as the speaker describes a river and outlines themes of heartache, longing for family, and rebirth while an acoustic ensemble slowly builds the song up to a gratifying release. “The Well” injects a welcome lightheartedness when the speaker breaks into a rambling, highly visual story-song about the consequences of acting impulsively when feeling frustrated. At seven minutes, “The Well” is the album’s longest song, but Callahan’s joyful energy makes the journey worthwhile. “Rock Bottom Riser” unfolds into a stately ode of gratitude and returns to the imagery of a river as the speaker details the impact of his loss and struggle on his family. “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” balances the album’s lushest musical interlude with an anguished, revealing reflection on the lasting damage of sibling turmoil. The final two songs adjust the album’s trajectory toward a cautious sense of hope for the future while acknowledging the toll of the past. Anchored by a spritely finger-picked guitar part, “I’m New Here” offers a refreshingly sly nod to facing the challenges that come with having to start over. In 2010, Gil Scott-Heron covered “I’m New Here” and borrowed the title for his critically acclaimed late-career album, I’m New Here. Callahan’s words fit so beautifully with Scott-Heron’s voice that the song feels equally at home on both albums. Scott-Heron died just over a year after releasing I’m New Here and the influence of Callahan’s signature humor adds buoyancy to an album that might otherwise feel burdened by Scott-Heron’s mortality. “Let Me See the Colts” parallels the structure of “Say Valley Maker” and concludes A River Ain’t Too Much to Love on a note of beleaguered optimism as the worn out speaker asks to see the horses “that will run next year” while the song gently progresses into a cathartic, forward-moving crescendo.

Bill Callahan has released four albums under his name since 2007 and each one has broadened the pattern he formed with A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. After I fell in love with this album, I wasn’t sure Callahan could top himself, so his excellent 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle came as a wonderful surprise. On Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Callahan brings a gentle full-color glow to the themes and imagery he rendered as black and white sketches on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. Over the last three decades, Bill Callahan has charted new territory in a well-traveled genre and A River Ain’t Too Much to Love lasts both as a career landmark and a point of embarkation for further exploration of Callahan’s exceptional artistry.    

-          John Parsell

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