What's the difference between a solo musician and a band?
The answer was easy back in the good old golden oldie days, when acts could be easily divided between those who went by the names of individuals (Elvis Presley) or adopted some collective title (The Beatles). But times change, and things get more complicated. Personally, I blame the Thompson Twins. As soon as people found out there were more than two of them, none of whom were called Thompson, all the rules went out of the window. Or perhaps it was Manfred Mann's fault. Whatever. The point is that these days more and more musical individuals are pretending to be groups, and the world is a more confusing place as a result.
This is especially true in the electronica section of your local record store, where you'll find any number of bedroom-based laptop-botherers releasing records under band-like names (think Aphex Twin, Wagon Christ, and Squarepusher) perhaps in some misguided attempt to sound less like socially awkward boys with an unhealthy interest in bleepy, squelchy sounds. More confusing is that the same practise is also common among the folky/alt-country crowd. Despite having roots containing many a traditional solo singer-songwriter, the likes of Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Will Oldham (Palace) are also blurring the line between the singular and collective.
Which brings me to Bill Callahan and his folky, lo-fi one-man band, Smog. I'll admit that I came to him (them?) late, despite the fact that he has been releasing music under the Smog name since the late 1980s. But as soon as I heard his low voice sing "Winter weather is not my soul/But the biding for spring" at the start of 2005's A River Ain't Too Much Love, I just couldn't love it enough. The album is both sparse and luxurious, stripped back to the bone in all the right places in order to let his deep, melancholic voice and black humor glow.
So when I heard that Callahan's next release would be under his own name, I was worried. As Smog, his music has varied in style, and even his biggest fans will probably admit that his back catalog has its rough patches, quality-wise. So what kind of radical shift was this name change signaling?
It turns out I had little reason to fret. Woke on a Whaleheart, released this year, may be different, but the adjustments are subtle, and don't disappoint. Ironically, the most notable change between the last Smog album and Callahan's first as a "solo" artist, is that the newer release sounds much more like the work of a band than an individual. The arrangements are fuller and more complex, with added musicians and backing singers chiming in all over the place, whereas many of the tracks on the last album could have been recorded by one lonely guy in a mountain shack (and quite possibly were). But, despite all the added warmth and color, Callahan's droll baritone still sets the tone. More accessible it may be, but shiny happy people it ain't -- thankfully.
Now, as if to further confuse his fans, the artist formerly known as Smog is planning to play not one but two San Francisco shows in a single day. On October 7 you can catch Callahan first at Golden Gate Park as part of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass free festival, and then indoors at The Independent later that same day. I can only recommend you go see him -- but whether he's going to turn up with a backing band or on his own is anyone's guess.