(Smog) – Accumulation: None

(Smog) – Accumulation: None

More than a decade since Bill Callahan self-released his inaugural home-cut cassettes, we’re still no closer to code-breaking his Smog enigma. Like his nearest bedfellow and labelmate Will Oldham, Callahan likes to keep us on the right side of baffled. Although Callahan hasn’t fallen for so many Prince-aping pseudonyms as Oldham (though recently he has insisted we humour his parenthesis-fetish by using the (Smog) tag in print), he’s clearly keen to play around with our probing perceptions.

So we’ve had Callahan as the 4-track racket-maker, the folk-pop slinger, the disturbed deadpan balladeer, and the Velvets-fixated fuzz-rocker. And just when 2000’s deliriously brilliant and perfectly balanced Dongs Of Sevotion album seemed to capture Callahan in a moment of genuine clarity, a year later he clouded the picture again by stepping into a warped blues-rock swamp to give us the entertaining but flawed Rain On Lens. Now comes this obliquely named compilation of rare vinyl singles, B-sides, radio sessions, and one new track, just to mess with our perspectives even further.

Instead of using this collection as a way of mopping up every last spillage from 10 years of extra-album activity, Accumulation: None follows the Neil Young-route to compilation track selection, which means aggravating fans. In the same way that Young omitted “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and “On the Beach” from his 60s/70s best-of collection Decade, Callahan doesn’t really seem to have given much consideration to the demands of his followers with this oddities compendium. While a definitive (Smog) obscurities set would straddle at least two or three CDs with 30-odd tracks, this is only one CD/LP of 12 tracks. Fans will weep at the omission of the brilliant acoustic versions of “Bloodflow” and “Held” (though we do get an unplugged “Cold Blooded Old Times”). Where is the whole of the sublime Kicking a Couple Around EP, you might ask? Also, for someone as prolific as Callahan, surely there is more than just one unreleased song gathering dust in the archives? More obstruction in the quest to find the real heart of (Smog) comes with the non-chronological track order, with ancient (and often quite silly) bedroom taped-tracks interspersed at random next to the newer more considered studio recordings.
Evidently Accumulation: None was not conceived as a lucidly recounted secret history. That would be too obvious and ordinary for the way of the (Smog). Instead Accumulation: None tries to emphasise that (Smog) is a beast with many different heads, as if the mix of musical settings should be seen as more important than Callahan’s perverse personality. Perhaps Callahan adopted this antagonistic approach as a self-preserving measure, to keep us from getting too close for discomfort?

Deliberate distancing aside, we can at least chew on some tasty lost morsels on Accumulation: None. The 1997 BBC radio session version of “Chosen One” (originally recorded on 1993’s raggedly lo-fi Julius Caesar) is simply spellbinding. The profoundly pretty piano-led makeover, with its unguarded romantic ruin, would sound perfect on Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call. The creepy and desolate strains of “Real Live Dress” and “Little Girl Shoes” capture Callahan cleverly stirring-up dark memories from simple day-to-day observations. The exclusively new track – “White Ribbons” – continues the musical themes explored on the grainy Rain On Lens, with its eerie sick-sounding electric guitars recalling the Velvet Underground’s first album and The Birthday Party’s Bad Seed and Mutiny EP’s.

Whilst many of the early lo-fi tracks like “Astronaut” and “Hole In Heart” will primarily please (Smog) purists (and Guided By Voices fanatics), they do highlight the sarcastic and sardonic wit that has carried over into the more recent and more accomplished sick/funny (Smog) classics like “Dress Sexy at My Funeral.” One of the better low-tech tracks here, the raucous “A Hit,” simultaneously celebrates and mocks the lo-fi approach, with Callahan croaking “It’s not going to be a hit / So why even bother with it?” and “I’ll never be a Bowie / I’ll never be an Eno / I’ll only ever be a Gary Numan.” Thankfully, he’s never come close to being anywhere near the latter.

The true golden moment of Accumulation: None however, is the live radio session run through “I Break Horses” (originally on the aforementioned 1996 EP, Kicking a Couple Around). Callahan’s 1997 spin of the song spreads the (Smog) kingdom into uncharted epic terrain. Building up from a low-key opening this tremendous take swells into a climatic clash of pounding pianos, hard-chugged guitars, and doom-laden drums, upon which Callahan delivers one of his deadliest nastiest refrains “Well tonight I’m swimming to my favourite island / And I don’t want to see you swimming behind.” The emphasis on these words almost seems like a warning to those seeking to follow Callahan’s (Smog)-trail too closely. But if he keeps releasing such beautifully savage songs as this, the wondering will never cease.If you want the truth behind the darkness and delirium that drives Bill Callahan, you still won’t be able dig it all out of here. If you wanted this to be the definitive (Smog) rarities round up, then you will also be sorely disappointed. What you will find, though, is a collection that shows flickers and flashes of bile, beauty, and brutal humour stacked-up in a multi-layered tower of song sandwich. Not to be swallowed whole, but laced with many fascinating flavours.