Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love – Drag City Records/Domino – 2005

Here we go again. I thought I can’t do all vinyl because that would be too ‘vinyl snobby’ so I stand in front of the CD shelves close my eyes and go right in pick out Million Mile Club by The Paladins, got half way through, abandoned ship and thought I need something easier to feel passionate about. The Paladins were great Rock ‘n’ Roll but nothing I can get my teeth into. So I looked around quickly and picked out Smog’s A River Ain’t Too Much To Love.

This barely qualifies for Thrift Store Disco as I actually spent full price pretty near its time of release. Still, no ones looking and you’ve gotta love Bill Callahan.

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Smog was Bill Callahan before he was Bill Callahan and everything about this record will tell you that this is Bill Callahan. It is perhaps the start of present day Bill Callahan. It isn’t my favourite Bill Callahan album but is the album that introduced me and so is very special to me. I completely missed Smog prior to this and first heard it on the amazing RTR FM radio station in Perth, Western Australia. The Smog back catalogue and Bill Callahan’s albums are all worth checking out especially the magisterial ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’.

This album is a lonesome sparsely instrumented organic record from nature. Bill Callahan has often been sparse and pretty low-fi, for goodness sake checkout ‘Apocalypse’ if you want proof. Bill has a fixation with nature spread throughout many of his albums. Look at the cover of ‘Dream River’ and ‘Sometimes I wish….’ if you want to know where Bill comes from. He comes from the woods, from the river, he flies with the birds. My daughter and I also have this feeling about Midlake. They are always tramping through the woods in winter and appear to be from long ago. Bill does the same but seems to do it today not in the eighteenth century. He also comes across a lot of bramble. He has a fair old crew with him too. Joanna Newsome plays piano on ‘Rock Bottom Riser’. I believe they were dating at the time. Thor Harris from the Swans plays hammered dulcimer on ‘I Feel Like The Mother of the World’. Jim White from The Dirty Three plays drums throughout. Not than anyone much plays much of anything. The instruments are always played simply and just enough. Jim White is particularly subtle.

The record commences with a guitar from a lonesome cowboy on Palimpsest (a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing). God knows what Bill means but he immediately introduces one of his favoured subjects, birds. ‘A southern bird that stayed North too long’. Next he sings about rebirth on Say Valley Maker ‘Bury me in fire and I’m gonna phoenix’. The Well sees Bill discovering a well in the ….er…. woods of course, shouting down it ‘Everyone’s got their own thing to shout down a well’ and then having a drip fall on his neck. Imagine….!. Next he speak of his family’s support for him in Rock Bottom Riser followed by, what is for me the album highlight I Feel like the Mother of the world’ made all the more special by the sound of Thor’s dulcimer beating. It almost makes it other worldly. In the Pines is a gentle country stomp…er in the woods naturally and Drinking at the Dam evokes childhood memories of teenage misbehaviour. He then waltzes off into the country with Running the Loping and dreams of rural life ‘Oh to be in the country, With a chicken….and those other things’! What other things Bill? Goats, Geese, Sheep…He gently fades away with more and more quiet reflection in the final songs like a small baby falling asleep.

Its strange that. We have a friend who would play Bill Callahan to his little lad when he was a bit fractious and it worked every time. he was forever know as uncle Bill from the time.

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Here’s some pictures of a very dapper Bill (my wife thought him very handsome) and a gorgeous green strat live in 2014

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