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Bill “Smog” Callahan’s new album, Knock Knock, his seventh for Drag City, reads like a story that begins with a suggestion to his main squeeze: “Let’s Move to the Country.” Inevitably, the singer high-tails it out of his new hometown; for Smog, “the best idea I ever had” (on “I Could Drive Forever”) is to split. And off he goes….”Hit the Ground Running” and “Cold Blooded Old Times” have a kind of Velvet Underground/Bowie feel that allows Smog to be less grave and more rhythmic, stretching out the jam longer. It makes Knock Knock a more satisfying, less punishing pop record with a cohesion that earlier, sometimes morbid Smog albums lackedeven the brilliant, home-recorded lo-fi gem Julius Caesar. Smog steers clear of crippling despair, issuing a warning against bitterness as he leaves a mess behind, and sometimes he lets his well-concealed sense of humor guide. On 1996’s sparse EP Kicking a Couple Around, Smog’s voice and guitar gave us such personal confessionsbleakly hung-up sketches from his torn-up notebook like “Back in School”that there wasn’t need for much instrumentation. Knock Knock at times builds from a sturdy frame of minimal guitar and keyboard that Smog and producer Jim O’Rourke (Faust, Tortoise) set up, and presents Smog ’99 as a kind of Bowie (with his Eno) in Berlin for our time. It’s on his return journey, in “I Could Drive Forever” (from South Carolina to Maryland, I imagine), that he finds his fading memory his only friend. Playing shows for a few years solo, he has once again enlisted a bandperhaps his world has to admit more than one or two extra people to avoid devastating collapse.
Smog plays the Black Cat Thursday, March 4, with Drunk and Telegraph Melts.