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Smog - A River Ain't Too Much to Love

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Artist: Smog

Album: A River Ain't Too Much to Love

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jun. 15, 2005

Bill Callahan’s 12th record comes stamped with a title that’s flippantly profound and profoundly flippant – twin hallmarks of an eccentric and remarkably durable career. The singer has emerged from behind his parenthesis, and while he wouldn’t be Smog if he didn’t keep his distance, there’s a weary forthrightness to these new songs – a sense of refined purpose that’s wonderfully on the level.

A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was recorded at Willie Nelson’s studio in Spicewood, Texas. I haven’t a clue how the characteristics of that room caused this clutch of austere, acoustic musings to sound distinct from his others, but there’s something unmistakably Texas in them. On “Running the Loping”, when Callahan sings, “It’s summer here and it’s hot”, it’s a fact you already know. It’s in the slow, sticky throb of Connie Lovatt’s bass notes and Jim White’s steady snare work – rickety and receding like the rattle of an old metal fan. The comfortable silences patched into the fabric of these arrangements were borrowed from Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. And the way that Callahan’s low, lazy voice lingers – like a glass of warm bourbon on a humid afternoon – is all country. No twang, just that rich, plaintive baritone you hear Waylon Jennings sing on jukeboxes when you’re lucky enough to stumble into the right places.

Water is the record’s central motif, but A River Ain’t Too Much to Love is also full of the images and preoccupations of old. A cache of skin magazines (“Drinking at the Dam”), the terrible beauty of galloping horses (“Let Me See the Colts”), the pathetic fallacies of the country-life dream (“Running the Loping”) – all of these have made prior appearances. In one of the record’s funniest lines, Callahan wonders aloud if he can’t just retreat from the empty bustle of modern life (“To take a wife and no paper / Never again to wonder ‘Did that rapper rape her?’”). You realize that he hasn’t escaped the ominous headlines of 1997’s Red Apple Falls, and he hasn’t noticed that the world has moved on from the literal paper, either. It’s these familiar waters – the streams and currents that meet up with the themes and images he’s been exploring for years – that linger in the gut. The stuff about earth, wind, and fire – death, love, and rebirth – mostly kind of bubbles away.

Two songs on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love refer consciously to ancient headwaters. The Leadbelly cover “In the Pines”, with its lonesome whistling and plodding vocals, is wholly unremarkable. But “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” sends happy shivers. A wonderfully joyous pun on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” it trades the spiritual’s naked gravity for a giddy energy that paints with broad, bold strokes – conjoining the universal (“Whether or not there is any type of God / I’m not supposed to say”) with the personal (“When I was a boy / I used to get into it bad with my sister”). Its meaning is cryptic, but its enthusiasm is enlivening – the dog days give way to warm sunshine, the cynic steps boldly from behind his bulwarks. You’re going to want to hear this one.

By Nathan Hogan

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