Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kicking A Couple Around


Band: Smog
Album: Kicking A Couple Around (EP)
Best song: Basically, the entire record is good. "Your New Friend" has a special place in my heart.
Worst song: Nah. It's only four songs.

I don't know if I've recounted the story of my favorite introduction to independent music in this space. Basically, in junior high -- I started HS in the fall of 1995 -- I had heard of and vaguely knew of independent music. A friend from school had a brother involved in a few indie rock bands and in the scene. My friend's brother lived in a building (or near or something) with some dudes. They were in a band called 'Tortoise' and for a drummer, apparently, they were not to be missed (I was a dummer at the time).

Cut to the summer before my freshman year. Thanks to Nirvana, my introduction to punk rock was based in the Flipper, Sonic Youth and the like. I knew SST because I had some friends in a band that covered Black Flag and Meat Puppets. Punk was my first introduction to that stuff, but because of my friend with the brother in the local scene, I heard that the local college's radio station was the way to learn about music. So, I tried to listen to WNUR, Northwestern University's station. A guy named Spencer worked a weeknight rock shift that I came to love.

One evening's actions started my love of underground music and remains the key thing that made me who I am today. I still have the tape. It was the spring of 1996. I called in, without knowing a single track name -- remember, this was before Wikipedia or band Web sites -- to request somethign from Tortoise. I knew their most recent album title -- Millions Now Living Will Never Die -- but didn't know any song titles. Spencer asked me what song I wanted. Nervously, I said I wanted the second track on the first side. He said he'd play something soon -- not wanting, I'm sure, to explain to me that the first side of Millions was one long song, "Djed."

So, I popped in a tape. The tracklist remains "Gamera" (a pretty rare 12-minute non-album single Tortoise song), Cheap Trick's "Top of the World," June of 44's "June Miller," the brilliant Fran├žoise Hardy's "Comment te dire adieu?" (the song that made me fall in love with any girl that speaks the language) and a long(ish) acoustic song recorded for the Peel Sessions called "Your New Friend" by a band called Smog.

Each of those songs will remain in my heart, probably, until I die. I spent a year and a half trying to track down the Gamera EP, eventually spending $75 on eBay for it in college. I saw June of 44 twice in one week. I bought every Smog record and saw Cheap Trick five times. I own two Hardy records despite not knowing a single word of French that doesn't appear on a menu.

They set a stage of meandering toward lo-fi meaning, weird emotion and quiet/loud dynamics. In a lot of ways, the bulk of my adult personality's foundation is built on those songs. I've tried to recreate the feeling I had listening to that tape a million times. I recently came close, but that thing's gone now.

(I later fell in kinda-love with two guys at my HS radio station and got into Yo La Tengo and Pavement via them.)

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Bill Callahan -- the man who is Smog -- knows how to write human-hating relationship songs. "Mistanthropy" is a word associated with Callahan as much as "lo-fi" and "folk."

"I Break Horses," according to our good friend Wikipedia, is a story of a one-night stand told in the nice metaphor of a horse trainer -- only Bill Callahan's famed, bizarre misanthropy can work that trick well. "The Orange Glow of a Stranger's Living Room" is a nice little track to end the EP, with some of Callahan's most expressive guitar work.

"Back in School" is a more rhythmic story of exes seeing one another for the first time in a bit. The main character wants to tell his ex of his plans, but can't come out with it. The awkward conversation, the party. It's all futile. And nothin will ever be less than awkard. It's cathartic and wonderful.

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The album's highlight, "Your New Friend" is a beautiful song, no doubt. At nearly seven minutes, it's a recounting of the depths of a boyfriend getting cheated on, while still living with the person. Holding to two or three lines per rhytymic line, Callahan's somber voice strains the near-blueprint explanation of the "chinese screen" and the bedroom the couple shared. Callahan's regret over past mistakes felt (though not actually mistakes) rings true to anyone being wronged:

Now this has been
Going on every night
Since that week i left town
It really makes me think
I shoulda stuck around


Callahan's codependent, pathetic protaginist knows his girl has checked out, both emotionally and physically, and remains. It's a tragic story told only via a few repeated strummed guitar lines and Callahan's melodramatic baritone.

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