Saturday, 10 March 2012

Smog - The Doctor Came at Dawn


A singer-songwriter from Maryland, twenty-nine year old Bill Callahan, under the pseudonym 'Smog' records his fifth album, The Doctor Came at Dawn. It is a beautiful record, to be admired for its gloomy, laconic sound and heartfelt lyrics.

As of 2012, Callahan has released eleven full length albums under his Smog moniker, alongside three under his actual name. Generally his music is very similar; quiet and sad...Very dark lyrically with depressing instrumentation generally organs, cello and acoustic guitar. Callahan’s deep voice also has a very forlorn atmospheric tone to it. Occasionally he will venture into more light hearted writing, but the majority of his music, and his earlier albums are almost entirely somber.

The Doctor Came at Dawn was released in September and is just under forty minutes in length, consisting of ten songs. Bill Callahan records all the instrumentation himself, with the exception of guest vocals from former-girlfriend Cynthia Dall on the third track. The only other contribution on the record comes from another Drag City veteran; Jim O’Rourke. This is his second time working with Callahan as he played cello on Callahan’s last record Wild Love. O’Rourke engineered 'Doctor Came at Dawn' and his input is noteworthy.

We began 'Doctor with You Moved In', which in turns, tells the beginning of the end of a relationship: taking things to the next level with ones significant other and watching it all fall completely apart. The seriousness of the album is evident in the first words. Callahan sings: “You moved in to my hotel. You could have done better, but oh well.” Anyone who has experienced that kind of bitter resentment will be relating to this record in the first two minutes of it. The song, while dark and bitter has a certain pop sensibility about it that keeps it on track and in tune, so to speak.

'Somewhere in the Night' is track two and starts with a faster tempo than the former track, and cleverly escalates than slows to a stop near the end like a Meatloaf track. I feel like this is more of a stereotypical Smog track than You Moved In is. Lyrics about licking spoons and searching for answers through b-sides, it’s the kind of lyricism that Callahan is known for.

The third track, 'Lize' is probably the 'stand out single' of the album. It’s centered around a catchy-as-fuck hook that pretty much guarantees its success, in that you will be singing it even hours after listening to this record. “They don’t make lies”, Callahan moans with his ex-girlfriend, “Like they used to”.

'Spread Your Bloody Wings' is a more difficult song to interpret. Wherein the first three tracks on Doctor are all very openly bitter, 'Spread Your Bloody Wings' is more rueful and I guess would represent a stage of regret in your cliche “seven stages of loss” album. It feels kind of out of place to me, between the melodic Lize and the misty instrumental that follows.

That instrumental, is 'Carmelite Light' which is a misty dream-like track that lasts a brief moment, not really long enough to like or dislike it.

The song I am most torn on is the last one on Side-A of the record, 'Everything You Touch' Becomes a Crutch which is the fastest song on the album. “I beat myself to sleep,” Howls Callahan. I think I've probably listened to this song more than any other on the album and I guess I would define it as much favourite track, though in contrast, it’s also probably most out of sync with the rest of the album. Similarly to Bloody Wings, I like the songs, but the placement in the track listing is confusing to me. It messes with the flow of the album.

Side-B opens with All Your Women Things, is to me, the most heartbreaking song on the album...Though the closer 'Hangman Blues' is a pretty close second, the way Callahan describes his ex-partner’s belongings, the seemingly insignificant things that seem so prominent in retrospect. He goes on to use the same format of description to talk about her breasts and personality. He dates the track as it having been 'seven years' since thee relationship and that thinking of her still makes him “weak in the knees.” Powerful stuff.

'Whistling Teapot (Rag)' is the most uplifting song atmospherically. Lize might sound somewhat optimistic in tone, but its lyrics swipe all chance of the song being considered a happy one. Whereas Whistling Teapot with it’s high notes and “Woo-hoos!” is a sort of fun sadness in a way. Though it should be noted, that this is a very brief feeling to be cut off right away.

The ninth song, 'Four Hearts in a Can' is a companion piece to Bloody Wings in that they both seem to try and convey the message of the album through metaphor, whereas the rest of the tracks deal with it directly. I would interpret this track to be talking about that feeling you get after a fight with your significant other, that drive, walk or whatever you may do to try and get away from it. The inevitability of course, returns to you eventually, but for that brief moment you attempt an escape at it. It doesn’t quite capture the feeling, but it definitely blue-maps it pretty well.

The final track, 'Hangman Blues' opens with the sound of Bill Callahan letting out snarling and empty-sounding laughter: “Ha, ha ha”. He repeats this between each section of lyric. It’s an interesting way to end the record and it helps curve the atmosphere of this closure. Not quite resolved, but more like post-trauma acceptance. You will never forget it, but you somehow accept it. The thing I like best about the track is that it is an entirely acapella, no instruments are featured at all.

Overall, The Doctor Came at Dawn is a achingly beautiful album and while definitely not perfect, despite it’s flaws it is an incredible listen almost every single time. Bill Callahan does not disappoint and though his break up must have been difficult, I for one, am truly grateful he was able to express it in such a way and share it with the world.
~Johnny

8.2

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