SMOG'S BILL CALLAHAN is a pretty funny guy. Not whoopingly funny like BET's Comedy Jam, but sourly funny like the way your milk smells when you leave it on the kitchen table all afternoon. He's a treat, though, for those of us who get the joke. When he approaches the microphone to mutter something morbid, you might not be able to see past his surface glumness, but like an indie-rock Super Dave Osborne (or at least Steven Wright) Callahan tends to pack a punch line behind his frown. This was so during Smog's early home-recording days, as well as the singer's most ostensibly bleak recordings, and it's just as true on Dongs of Sevotion, Callahan's eighth Smog album.
This time around, the itinerant songwriter surfaces in Chicago, where he's accompanied by members of Tortoise, as well as his own synthesizer arrangements. The varied approach fits Smog's perpetually evolving style well. On "Devotion" Callahan scolds the "terrible gossips in this town, with jaws like vices and eyes like drains" over instrumental tinkering that's light enough to qualify as spoken-word accompaniment. Other songs feature thundering drums and gnawing electric guitars. Some, like opener "Justice Aversion," carry faint dub flavors.
But the bits that cajole listeners to sevote themselves to this band's dongs are the album's wittiest. In "Dress Sexy at My Funeral" Callahan beseeches his widow to undo her blouse and split her skirt while the minister (at whom she must wink) reviews the deceased narrator's life. When the widow addresses the crowd, she's expected to share details of their sexual adventures. Equally sharp is "Bloodflow," a hypnotic groovefest featuring tape effects, upright bass, and a trio of cheerleaders nicknamed "The Dongettes." Callahan employed a similar trick last year on Knock Knock with an amateur children's chorus, but the Dongettes' contribution is far more striking. The juxtaposition of the words ("Hold on hold on with a grip so tight/It dams my blood makes my head feel light") and the lyric's conduit (cheerleaders!) introduces an absurdity that should prove a threat to any singer-songwriter who's ever dropped a tear onstage. Any musician who so consistently inspires shudders from his peers must be doing something right.
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