Since the late 1980s, Bill Callahan has performed and recorded under the alias Smog, offsetting his notoriously lo-fi music with an over-serious baritone and intensely personal lyrics. At times his vocals sound less like singing than a spoken poetry reading. Smog's latest, "A River Ain't Too Much to Love," continues his tradition of lyrical expression, capturing even in its title the immeasurable and the intangible, much like his own nebulous moniker.
Callahan recorded "A River" at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Spicewood, Tex., rather than his home town of Chicago, and this migration southward seems natural for someone whose stoic deadpan is closer to a drawl than a growl. But the southern influence ends there. "A River" is far from twang. Instead, Callahan's slow, repetitive guitar tones give a comforting warmth to the lullaby-like "Running the Loping." Callahan maintains the sharp attention to detail that such minimalistic arrangements require, from the faint whistling during "In the Pines" to the sharp rum-pa-pum-pum percussion fills added by the Dirty Three's Jim White on "Say Valley Maker."
"A River" reaches a high point with "Rock Bottom Riser," in which Callahan infuses seemingly cheesy lyrics ("I bought this guitar / to pledge my love / to pledge my love to you") with such melancholy it sounds as though he hasn't smiled in years. Coupled with the subtle piano playing of folkster Joanna Newsom, Callahan's openly honest lyrics, his simple but sharp arrangements and his dryly intense vocals fuse in this under-the-radar songwriter's most cohesive album to date.
-Catherine P. Lewis