SMOG'S BILL CALLAHAN hides behind his persona as coyly as his softspoken musical peer Chan Marshall of Cat Power shudders beneath her equine mane. But while Marshall's shy demeanor lends an air of mystery, Callahan is much more calculating. Long the consummate showman, Callahan embodies, by turns, the restless youth, the scorned lover, and, in his latest incarnation, the lonesome cowboy: a drifter with a proverbial chip on the shoulder of his denim shirt. But though he may cling desperately to tired Western lore, he certainly wears that Stetson well.
As the cover of his latest offering suggests, 'Neath the Puke Tree is ripened fodder for Callahan's tooth-baring sensibilities. Perfect in its extended-play form, the record reads like a novella. The opening acoustic strum of "I Was a Stranger" (updated from 1997's Red Apple Falls) (Drag City) wends without any destination. Advertising his supposedly enigmatic presence, Callahan wails of how he's a stranger...ad nauseam. With "Your Sweet Entrance," Callahan ushers in the dame with characteristic oddball aplomb: "Triddly-biddly-boo/I knew a girl/Giddily true/And I reeled her in/And clamped her tight/Would she shudder and buck/under my might" over a rumba of a riff. The suspense reaches a crescendo as breaking waves and seagulls bookend "A Jar of Sand," with Callahan describing "a chorus of tide pools just deep enough to drown in." Aw, Bill, you spoiled the ending!
Puke Tree's high point is "Orion Obscured by Stars," which allows Callahan to employ Nerudian metaphors over wisps of trademark muted guitar. "It was not mine or hers or ours," he sings. "It was just a tiny mole on her thigh/Misted by her hose/Like the moon clouded in the sky/Or was it her nose?" In the end theme, "Coacheecayoo," he ropes up any trace of emotion, rolls a cigarette, and has a drink before heading into the sunset. True enough, this man can create atmosphere with a simple breath, aided by a few leisurely plucked strings to highlight his monotonous musings. But though there's no denying Callahan's true gift for storytelling, his minimalist nature can't save a plot that would only fill a paragraph on the back of a Louis L'Amour novel.
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