The Doctor Came at Dawn (1996) probably represents Callahan's most severe soundtrack of personal desperation. Spare and bitter, its songs conjure closed scenes that hum and bleed with intense sensory details. On "All Your Women Things," the album's most piercing song, Callahan completes a surreal inventory of a 7-year-old romance's detritus:
All your bridges and bras
Your cotton and gauze
All your buckles and straps
Releases and traps
All your screws and false nails
Oriental winks and Egyptian veils...
How could I ignore
Your left breast
Your right breast
Able to find something of significance--usually the wrong kind--in the most minute of details and the smallest of gestures, Callahan had arrived at his endgame: He'd done sparse to perfection, so what next? Enter Chicago guitarist-producer Jim O'Rourke. A prolific avant-gardist with a taste for such pop composers as Jack Nitzsche and Van Dyke Parks, O'Rourke took the helm for Red Apple Falls, adding a stately classicist-pop touch to some numbers and facilitating Callahan's ambitions on others.
"When I first heard Bill's music," O'Rourke says, "I liked the honesty of it; I could sense it. There was an authenticity to it that was immediately intriguing. I appreciate anyone who can say very profound, very true things in a way that can be accessed by anybody. It's not wordplay for wordplay's sake--he can access feelings that we all have in an understated but potent way."
Callahan is characteristically wry about working with O'Rourke. When asked about the mood in the studio, he says, "I only have one mood. It was that one. That's why I write songs. All the other moods have to come out somehow." But the producer, whether by accident or not, ended up being on hand for Smog's most expansive record yet, an album ranging from subtly evocative ("The Morning Paper") to downright jaunty ("Ex-Con") to somewhere in between (the country moves of "I Was a Stranger"). Red Apple Falls won raves, eliciting something close to fawning wonder by The New Yorker--which looked back at The Doctor Came at Dawn long enough to dub it a "miracle of pop minimalism"--but the new Knock Knock might be Callahan's finest hour yet.
Ranging wildly from odd folk vignettes to rock stomps, the record shows its maker to be in a surprisingly free-spirited mood. It starts out with "Let's Move to the Country," an idealistic, romantic call for a new start; layered with multitracked, breathy voices and punctuated by a cello, the song exudes the fresh air of its subject. And even though Callahan can't quite follow through--"Let's start a / Let's have a," he sings without ever completing his thoughts--you can sense his mood throughout, from the lighthearted, sweet spaciousness of "Teenage Spaceship" ("I was a teenage spaceship...people thought my windows were stars") to "Held," which is practically optimistic in its letting go: "I lay back in the tall grass / And let the ants cover me...For the first time in my life / I let myself be held / Like a big old baby." And then there are the kids--an entire chorus of them, in fact--singing along with "Hit the Ground Running" and "No Dancing."
"Kids are always difficult in the studio," O'Rourke says. "You're trying to get a good take, and many times the kids just can't sing, so you gotta figure out a way to get them to 'take a break' without letting on that is what you're doing. So I bribed the ice-cream truck to ride by whenever I called it. Each time, after I made the call, I'd ask a certain kid, 'Oh, wouldn't you love an ice cream cone?' Worked every time."
Callahan, however, refused to resort to such trickery.
"You can't criticize children's singing," he says. "It's a crowd-pleaser."
Tongues and cheeks notwithstanding, Knock finds Callahan moving ever further from the crowd-fearing stereotypes that dog him. Before it was recorded, he moved to Chicago, which has become a sort of indie-rock ground zero over the past couple of years, but don't chalk Knock up to his new environment. "The move to Chicago had nothing to do with bands at all," he says. "I don't want to hang out with bands. I don't get anything from that sort of environment." Better to find other reasons for the record's success. Most superficially, there's (again) the stylistic range: "Held" is propelled by its acid-rock guitar riff; "No Dancing" offsets its distorted guitar with the kids and full orchestration on its chorus; and "Cold Blooded Old Times" is as close to the Velvet Underground as he'll likely get. More important is the cohesiveness--of tone, of quality--that elevates Knock Knock's breadth from the work of a dilettante to a work of confidence, grace, and skill.