The Sound(cloud) of (Smog)
by Kate Leib on September 29, 2014
Posted in: Concert, Folk, Music, Rock
When the words “Smog” and “Middlebury” are mentioned in the same breath, it’s natural for one to conjure an image of the large, black, polyhedron mass that looms ominously on the outside of McCardell Bicentennial Hall. But, If you’ve ever had the pleasure of spending a few hours with WRMC automation, another thought may come to mind. Chances are, you’ve probably heard the deceptive 30 second cart that’s backed by the distinctive opening chords of “Held”, the second track off Smog‘s seminal 1999 masterpiece Knock Knock. The cart advertises “Smog. In concert this Friday, 8 PM at Coltrane Lounge,” throwing the listener into a 12-year time warp. In the college radio world, archaism and nostalgia tend to rule the day, and at one point so did the orchestral slowcore rock of Smog. Of the eleven Smog CDs in our back library, 5 have received a grade of A-, 3 have received an A, and one has an A+ (Knock Knock, duh).
Tony Smith’s aluminum sculpture Smog is alike to the band Smog in many ways: 1) Smog is dark, 2) Smog is minimalist, and 3) Smog is not for everyone. Back in November of 2002, two years after Smog the sculpture found its home outside BiHall, Bill Callahan, the brooding and prolific genius behind Smog — or (Smog), as the band name was stylized for a brief period back then — played a show at Middlebury College. From the time when I first heard the automation cart belatedly advertising the Smog show my freshman year, I’ve been slightly obsessed with what must have been a raw and intimate performance. According to Middlebury Campus articles written before and after the show, words like raw and intimate don’t even itch, scratch, or gash the surface when it comes to Bill Callahan’s lyrics and performance.
Former student Daniel Wolf-Roda captured the Smog effect best in his show recap:
“Two Fridays ago, Middlebury music aficionados were treated to a captivating performance by the sad-core music minimalism of Bill Callahan. Think of hard-core, slow it down to a crawl, drown it in a birdbath full of self-indulgent teardrops and that’s what I mean by sad-core minimalism. Callahan created a profound and chilling emotional experience for those who were brave enough to bear the pain and frustration transmitted through his songwriting…For several days after his performance and the interview I was overcome with subtle and philosophical commiseration. I honestly think that Bill Callahan of (Smog) is one of the saddest people I have ever met.”
–The Middlebury Campus, 12/4/2002
This past summer, I had the pleasure of spending most of my day in WRMC world, managing new music, overseeing programming, and organizing our physical and digital libraries. One day, in my exploration of our digital archive, I was delighted to find the recording of (Smog)’s performance in Coltrane lounge. After two years of hearing that 30 second teaser on automation, I had finally found another piece of the puzzle, a sonic relic from WRMC’s past, and it was as sparse and chilling as I could have hoped.