18 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #17

Smog, Burning Kingdom EP (Drag City, 1994)

This is one of the most starkly unhappy and depressive records in Bill Callahan's discography, which is actually saying something. Never one to shy away from dark thoughts and feelings early on in his career, Callahan's songwriting on Burning Kingdom displays an incessantly apocalyptic and bitter viewpoint. The record begins with "My Shell [Electric Version]," which takes a defiantly lo-fi single that featured a surly, weedy vocal and an acoustic guitar so grotesquely over-recorded that it may as well have been run through a distortion pedal, and renders it in a huge, well-produced, stormy performance with a full band that is about a thousand times more foreboding and frightening than the early version was. Callahan's lyrics are sometimes so ridiculously depressive that they're actually pretty funny, which is the point: "When you crawl into my shell/You're after my jokes/They serve you well." Droning cellos, thundering drums, and Callahan's best performance on guitar at that time all serve to make this scarily effective. The EP is relentlessly bleak. A melodic, almost incongruously carefree vocal from Cynthia Dahl (who died this year in April) graces the musically fragile and lyrically vicious "Renee Died 1:45," and the keyboards in the background of "Drunk on the Stars" are nearly ambient, but besides those two things, there's no relief from the overwhelming emotional tone of bilious depression, or Callahan's sneering baritone groan of a voice. There are some unfortunately corny and terrible guitar melodies on "Not Lonely Anymore," but there are no missteps otherwise. "The Desert" is almost nothing but processed organ and Callahan's deadpan voice spelling out unconquerable malaise. This is probably one of the better indie EP's released during the '90's, but it's hard to figure out how Callahan could have gone any farther in this direction without turning into a self-parody. Even his next two releases, the often great Wild Love and the wildly inconsistent but sometimes spellbinding The Doctor Came at Dawn, aren't quite so resolutely down in the mouth as Burning Kingdom is.

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