Smog - Red Apple Falls

HE FEELS helplessly, hopelessly isolated. He talks of his brother dying and his parents, "trying to slowly do themselves in". He dreams of dead birds in moonlit gardens of thorns. He has severe recurring problems with widows. He gets the paper every morning and it's just full of bad news...

Yep, things are looking up in Smogworld. Oh sure, most all of Bill Callahan's (The Artist Known As Smog) waking and sleeping moments are tainted by torment, but compared with the desolated blues of last year's 'The Doctor Came At Dawn', 'Red Apple Falls' is one long party, albeit the kind where the guests are frisked for wrist-slitting implements at the door.

See, as with the likes of Morrissey and Leonard Cohen before him, Callahan sees the big laughs inherent in abject misery. "I was worse than a stranger/I was well-known," he croaks on 'I Was A Stranger', an untouchable King Of Deadpan for the new era. Cohen, in particular, is an accurate touchstone: for much of 'Red Apple Falls', Callahan apes his lugubrious, semi-spoken baritone, except for when the music speeds up a little and he becomes Lou Reed, parched and withering. After numerous, occasionally inspired releases - from the crotchety lo-fi of his first tapes, through the tremulous gothic stylings of 'Wild Love', to the stark acoustic agonies of 'The Doctor...' - he appears finally to have manoeuvred himself comfortably into the pantheon of great, self-consciously tragic singer-songwriters.

Hence 'Red Apple Falls' begins with 'The Morning Paper', replete with French horn flourishes, that's a direct echo of Nick Drake's 'Hazy Jane'. Thereon in, Callahan's minimal sketches of tunes are filled out with lots of piano and some lovely, keening pedal steel that gives a warm, woody tone to the general bleakness of proceedings. Sometimes, songs are very, very slow and relentless. Sometimes - the best times, as with 'Inspirational' and the title track - they're merely quite slow and relentless, like a countrified Velvet Underground. Once, on 'Ex-Con', the refined air is ditched for a jaunty, New Order-ish electropop romp, by some distance, the most bizarre thing here.

"Most of my fantasies are of making someone else come," reckons Callahan on 'To Be Of Use', always one for the grand gesture, the eternally self-obsessed trying so, so hard to be selfless. And failing, of course. But with such style.

. 8/10

John Mulvey