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    Friday, August 25, 2006

    Rock bottom riser: Smog MP3s

    The hardest thing to predict about albums is their staying power. There are some I've loved thoroughly and expected to listen to actively for years. But after a few weeks of constant spins, with the love by no means diminished, I'd become ready to move on. Whatever I was getting from that collection of songs I'd gotten and besides, there are always eight million other possibilities on deck. It's still a much more humane fate than what usually happens: I'll listen to a new album three or four times, try my best to appreciate it, feel bored or disappointed by its mediocrity and move back to the growing pile. Oh well.

    But then there are those other blissfully enigmatic albums to consider. Those shadowy, inexplicable albums that sneak up to you in the midst of a train ride, while you're careening a shopping cart down aisle three, while you're watching the girls at the bar fix their hair in the mirror. A lyric will suddenly stalk you, a melody will contort your lips into making its sounds. While you were listening to the album in question, you were enjoying it well enough. Maybe not Album of the Year material, but solid and pleasant. And yet it keeps coming back to you, while the train car packs, while you're browsing tabloid headlines on the checkout line, while you trying out a new pickup line. It becomes a craving, later a daily obsession. There's some mystery, abstraction, or open-endedness in the music, some elemental element that won't let you forget it.

    I call it the Alligator effect and the closest I came to experiencing it in 2006 was with Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up I Am Dreaming. But then, with Bill Callahan releasing an EP of "Rock Bottom Riser" in June, I decided to revisit 2005's A River Ain't Too Much To Love one night. I enjoyed it a lot last year, but somehow its muted melodies never demanded my full attention then. The story's changed since. I'm gone now and there's no turning back. I've been listening to River at least once a day for a few weeks, and usually more. I'm singing key phrases to myself--"I'm a Southern bird who stayed north too long," "Bury me in fire and I'm gonna phoenix," "oh my foolish heart had to go diving diving diving into the murk"-- at any inopportune time. I'm hearing Callahan's deep baritone and his folky guitar plucks insinuate themselves on any occasion.

    This is music that never announces itself or tries to show off; it just eases back and lets you discover it. It reveals a few additional nuances every time, a few extra delicate layers or pithy lyrics that suddenly seize you out of nowhere. The gentle piano ascensions on "Rock Bottom Riser" may unexpectedly devastate you one day. You may be struck with what a perfect closer "Let Me See The Colts" is or what a perfect opener "Palimpsest" is. You may be undone by completely different things that I haven't even encountered yet. But whatever you do, don't be fooled by A River Ain't Too Much To Love's simplicity or its placidity like I was. It may not be the first album in your collection you reach to hear, but once it hits your ear, it's likely never to leave you.

    * MP3: "Say Valley Maker" - Smog from A River Ain't Too Much To Love
    * MP3: "I Feel Like The Mother of The World" - Smog from A River Ain't Too Much To Love [Buy it]

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