Smog - Knock Knock Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Bill Callahan’s masterful 1999 record as Smog, a breakup album about discovering new ways of being in the world.

The small South Carolina town of Prosperity, pop. 1173, didn’t necessarily seem touched by God’s good grace. It was a strange place for a musician with a growing international following to wind up, but then, Bill Callahan had bounced between a lot of strange places. Born in 1966 in Silver Spring, Maryland, and having spent part of his childhood in the North of England, where his parents did some kind of clandestine work for the NSA, he’d shuffled from city to city—Sacramento, California; Buford, Georgia; Dover, New Hampshire—rarely sticking around for long. Noncommitment came naturally: A three-time college drop-out, he’d picked up the guitar as a teen, given it up out of frustration, and then tried again. By 1997, when he landed in Prosperity, it seemed like the only reason he came was to find a reason to leave.
By this point in his career, Callahan had built a tidy little reputation as Smog. Beginning in the late ’80s, he had put out a handful of self-released tapes on his own Disaster Records, named after one of his zines; by 1992 he’d graduated to Drag City, a fledgling Chicago label cultivating a roster of acts like Pavement, Royal Trux, and Silver Jews—bands that took the willful ethos of American underground rock and flipped it into stubborn high art, scruffy and proudly nonconforming. Not exactly an outsider but definitely not an insider, he occupied a liminal space—making out-of-the-way sounds in out-of-the-way places, forever trailing rock music’s dominant strains the way a decommissioned highway shadows a six-lane interstate.

Callahan had grown up with a transistor radio pressed to his ear at night, listening first to soft-rock AM stations and then the hardcore punk he discovered at the far left of the dial, and it showed: His taste for low volumes had been tempered by the former, and his fondness for scabrous textures forged in the fires of the latter. In the beginning, Smog’s music fit the moniker: gray, formless, acrid. When Callahan played guitar, he might have been attempting to decipher hidden messages from moldy John Lee Hooker records. But over time, the outline of an actual songwriter started poking through the haze of busted stompboxes, pause-button edits, and Dadaistic pranks.

On albums like 1995’s Wild Love and the following year’s The Doctor Came at Dawn, the guitar tone became cleaner, the stereo field more uncluttered, the words darker and more biting. “I’m gonna be drunk, so drunk at your wedding,” he taunted in one song; in another, he sighed, “Maybe you should have a drink/I don’t know why you ever stopped anyway.” He could channel real ugliness, speaking the language of ne’er-do-wells and abusers, but the tenderness in his music could be as unexpected as the bile. In “To Be of Use,” he admitted in a sad, honeyed voice, “Most of my fantasies are of/Making someone else come.” As masculine myths of young adulthood go, it was the oldest story in the book: the class clown with a curdled heart, just waiting to be made whole.

Callahan’s lyrics gradually grew from post-adolescent expressions of garden-variety self-loathing into something far more unusual and often more ominous, in the sense that they seemed wrapped around actual omens—magic phrases throbbing with eerie portent. He sang of blood-red birds, a headstone on a wharf, a widow’s ghost driving a horse cart full of apples. Often, an object or a turn of phrase would keep turning up across the course of a record, like a bad penny. These imagistic verses felt like fragments of something essential and enduring, splinters of the Old Weird America that had burrowed under Callahan’s skin and burst into strange, spindly blossoms.

Callahan had come to Prosperity in 1997 to live with Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power. The two of them were shacked up in an eight-room farmhouse next to a used-car lot, surrounded by green fields and old machines gone to rust; the rent was $425 a month. Callahan was fresh off the Jim O’Rourke-produced Red Apple Falls, an expansive breakthrough in his catalog. Marshall, to hear her tell it, had given up music for good, despite having a string of sublime and unsettling records under her own belt. But at some point in their cohabitation, things went south; Callahan drove north. He’d later say that he wrote an album’s worth of material on the drive from Prosperity to Chicago, sitting behind the wheel of his Dodge van, staring into the middle distance. Those songs would become Knock Knock, his ninth full-length as Smog, and his sixth for Drag City.

Knock Knock anticipates the openness of Callahan’s later albums, particularly the ones under his own name. The languid Red Apple Falls was a head record, a pastoral daydream of piano laments and pedal steel, flecked with French horn and fingerpicked acoustic guitar; Knock Knock is a road record, smooth as worn asphalt—a record about motion, distance, flying blind. Where before his gaze had often been fixed on lovers, exes, or his own scowl in the mirror, here he looks outward, at the world, as well as more reflexively, even beatifically, inside himself. If Red Apple Falls was a misfit’s badge of honor, Knock Knock is an unburdening, a breakup album about discovering new ways of being in the world.

Again, Callahan recorded with Jim O’Rourke; this time they spent 10 days in the studio, twice what Red Apple Falls had taken them. Drummer Thymme Jones, a Chicago fixture who had played on the previous album, returned for the new one, joined by Vandermark Five drummer Tim Mulvenna. Plush’s Liam Hayes, a session player on numerous Will Oldham records, handled guitar on some songs, while the prolific post-rock guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors took top billing in the credits. (The lyric sheet doesn’t specify who played on what.)

To record with a full band was exhilarating, Callahan would recall: “It’s a different energy when you have three or four people playing. Knock Knock was intoxicated with that feeling. I was taking some of the responsibility off my back, and having more fun.” It didn’t hurt that O’Rourke, who also contributed guitar, bass, and piano, actually liked Callahan’s music, and was creatively invested in a way that previous studio engineers—like the one who methodically worked his way through a six-pack during recording, barely acknowledging Callahan’s presence—had not always been.

Accordingly, Knock Knock often sounds bigger and more ample than its predecessor. O’Rourke kept his experimental tendencies in check, ceding the spotlight to Callahan’s voice—warmer and fuller than it had ever been recorded before, a reluctant river of feeling lit by purple dusk—and rounding it out with gentle strokes of cello, Velvets-style motorik chug, and classic-rock choogle. The album could hardly be described as minimalist, but it is economical to the extreme; no song admits anything beyond the bare necessities required to express itself. The one indulgence they permitted themselves, in addition to a string quartet, is a children’s choir that turns up on a couple of songs, lending the grim “No Dancing” and the determined “Hit the Ground Running” an air somewhere between Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and a camp-town revival meeting.

Callahan called Knock Knock his album for teenagers, though it’s hard to know how seriously he meant it; this was the era when he still preferred to conduct interviews by fax, and journalists often came away grumbling that they’d been made fools of. (In truth, his answers were simply smarter than the vast majority of their questions.) He told interviewers that the record cover—with its jagged lightning bolt and peevish-looking wildcat—was meant to represent objects that young folks like. “Some of the themes are things I associate with teenage years—having big plans, thinking you can live like a gypsy,” he told the Chicago Reader. “There’s a lot about moving and traveling on the record. Most adults let that die.” Even the hand-drawn text on the sleeve had a vaguely heavy-metal shape, like a band logo a kid might scrawl on his Trapper Keeper.

No stranger to classic rock, Callahan had previously sampled the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and referenced AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” This time, he said, he wanted to make anthems, and he did. “Held” is an incandescent swamp rocker. Palm-muted guitars give “No Dancing” the feel of something you might have heard emanating from pickup trucks doing donuts in parking lots, the weeds littered with empties. “Hit the Ground Running” is a straight-ahead mid-tempo Southern rocker, wrapping an inspirational chorus about fleeing the country for the open road around a far bleaker frame: “Bitterness is a lowest sin/A bitter man rots from within/I’ve seen his smile, yellow and brown/The bitterness has brought him down.” Its finale, complete with perkily ascending strings and that jubilant children’s choir, is an infallible day-brightener.

These riff-heavy songs gave Knock Knock a quality that people weren’t used to hearing from Smog albums: It sounded fun. That was especially true of “Cold Blooded Old Times,” a highlight on a record that hardly wants for stellar songs. Like Callahan’s best work, “Cold Blooded Old Times” is sneaky, smuggling the evil that men do inside a deceptively appealing, practically quaint frame. Picking up the ’60s-flavored skip and shuffle of Red Apple Falls’ “Ex-Con,” it sounds at first almost peppy, a straight-up dance number complete with an irresistible, indelible chorus. (That catchiness carried it all the way to 2000’s High Fidelity soundtrack, where it featured alongside songs from the Kinks, the Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan.) But listen past the strumming and the handclaps, and a darker picture emerges: It’s a story of abuse, of a father—whether the song’s subject’s, or someone else’s, it’s not clear—who beat his wife, terrified his children, and possibly carried out even more unspeakable acts. It is a chilling song wrapped in a cozy sweater of a chord change, with one of the all-time great lines in Callahan’s oeuvre: “Cold blooded old times/The type of memories/That turn your bones to glass.” It’s an image so vivid, so tactile, it seems almost like something you could hold in your hand—a small, glinting monument to cruelty and shame.

These uptempo tracks, even when they hid ugly secrets, were a punchy riposte to the many critics, especially in the UK, who seemed to find Callahan an incorrigible downer. One descriptor had followed him across the broad stretch of the 1990s: “miserable.” The word often took the form of “miserabilist,” an odd back-formation, kin to “ventriloquist” or “illusionist,” suggesting a person uncommonly skilled in the art of despair. And, OK, sometimes that characterization was actually kind of true. But on Knock Knock, even the slowest, softest tunes pulsed with life. Just consider “Teenage Spaceship,” a wistful song loosely based on Callahan’s adolescent habit of wandering his neighborhood in the small hours, when everyone was in bed but him. Imagining himself as a flying saucer, he describes flying around the houses at night, remote and alone, untouchable; “Landing at night/I was beautiful with all my lights,” he sings, his voice dropping down to gravel, drawing out “lights” into two exquisite syllables.

The song’s four hushed, reverent minutes are full of possible meaning. “I was a teenage smog/Sewn to the sky” calls back to one of Smog’s first albums; it also anticipates, however unknowingly, the day that Callahan would eventually abandon the alias in favor of his own name, against the protestations of his label. (“The word ‘Smog’ meant nothing to me—just like symbols on a slot machine, like a cherry or a horseshoe,” he would later say. “I realized that’s what I was broadcasting, that’s the face I was giving to people.”) Hovering eerily between his past and his future, “Teenage Spaceship”—one of the gentlest, most beautiful songs in his entire catalog—comes to appear like a beacon that cuts through time and space.

As would become standard procedure on many of Callahan’s albums, both as Smog and under his own name, Knock Knock’s 10 songs fit into a loose narrative arc. He had experimented with recurring themes on Red Apple Falls, but this was something new: an implicit story, with a beginning, middle, and end. “Let’s Move to the Country,” the opening song, sketches the broad outline of the tale: A wandering man is ready to settle down. Over skeletal, clean-toned guitar and an ostinato cello pulse, the song’s protagonist lays all his cards out on the table:

Let’s move to the country
Just you and me
My travels are over
My travels are through
Let’s move to the country
Just me and you

For a while, it’s smooth sailing. There are songs about finding security (“Held”), about confronting anxiety (“No Dancing”), about solitude (“Teenage Spaceship”). The circle closes with the album’s final, three-song stretch. By “Hit the Ground Running,” Callahan—or at least, the Callahan of the song—is behind the wheel, crossing state lines like they were sidewalk cracks. “I Could Drive Forever” is the hushed yin to “Hit the Ground Running”’s ebullient yang: a measured rumination on regret, a fuzzy dream of an infinitely receding horizon. “I should have left a long time ago/The best idea I ever had,” he sings, his voice strengthening against a watery tremolo backdrop. Weary and resigned, “Left Only With Love” wraps up the album with a farewell to the person that he has left behind, a soft expression of regret. Callahan’s unsteady voice is nearly naked but for threadbare guitar strings and velvety reverb. It is the mirror opposite of the opening song’s boundless optimism.

Of course, these songs are never simply “about” their subject or their themes, much less dependent upon the particulars of Callahan’s own existence, however much a given lyric might have been rooted in something he lived. The joy of them is in their fabric, the warp and weft of truth and lies. In moments both loud and quiet, Knock Knock feels luminous, phantasmal, hovering three feet off the ground—a thing not quite of this world. How could anyone pin such a creation on something as unremarkable as one man’s quotidian existence?

“Autobiography is not something I’m interested in,” Callahan told a blogger in 2001. He reiterated to The Independent, “I try to keep myself out of it as much as possible.” Nearly a decade later, he was still shooting down questions about the veracity of his songs, sometimes to the point of annoyance. “It really has to be that either everything is autobiography or nothing is autobiography, with nothing in between,” he told The Quietus in 2010. “That's the only way to deal with this age-old question of which I am, pardon my French, not remotely interested in.” That same query just kept coming, until finally he relaxed into something resembling a zen mindstate. “It’s music,” he told City Pages, as though such a thing might not be obvious. “It’s a creation. They’re songs. Songs are about music. They’re musicbiographical.”

One of my favorite songs on the album is the one most difficult to interpret, at least within a biographical framework. On the surface, “River Guard” is about a prison guard who takes his prisoners to a swimming hole. The mood is contemplative, daydreamy. He sits in the grass, watches them floating on their backs, then looks away. Is he toying with the idea of letting them escape? When he hauls them back in, he tells us, “They always say/Our sentences will not be served/We are constantly on trial/It’s a way to be free.” It’s a cryptic line, and a good one, good enough for him to repeat the final couplet again at the song’s end. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean, honestly. But particularly in the context of later songs like “The Well” and “Writing,” where Callahan takes evident pleasure in grappling with the creative process itself, I wonder if it isn’t in some way about the act of interpretation. Perhaps the prisoners are his songs. “We are constantly on trial,” they say. “It’s a way to be free.” The lifeblood of a song depends on deferring final judgment, making sure the gavel never falls.

There’s another lyric on the album I come back to a lot. It’s in “Held,” a song about contentment, trust, the security of being held “like a big old baby.” There’s a lot going on in its 15 slim lines, including a blanket of ants and a jet plane exploding in the sky. But at the song’s climax, Callahan marvels, rapturously, “For the first time in my life/I am moving away moving away moving away/From within the reach of me.”

Nearly two decades later, Callahan would admit that these were not his best years. “I was kind of a little putz,” he said. “Inchoate. Wandering. I didn’t know how to be honest with myself and others, for the most part. Or at least there were certain personalities I couldn’t deal with in a healthy, self-preserving way. You can slip through the cracks and have a lot of adventures for a long time and when you get older you wonder if that was good for you, necessary, or a waste.” Whatever else “Held” might be about, it sounds like a song about growing up, or at least trying to—shedding dead skin, escaping his worst tendencies, even if just for a spell. Callahan wasn’t leaving Prosperity in order to find himself; quite the opposite. The whole album was a disappearing act. Callahan, the man, had dissipated, like a blanket of smog scattered by the north wind. What was left—what is left—were these songs: a testament to the endurance of the work, and the irrelevance and impermanence of all other concerns.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Smog - Knock Knock Music Album Reviews Smog - Knock Knock Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, August 02, 2020 Rating: 5

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