Smog, Red Apple Falls, 1997

I bought this on CD in 1997, the year of its release, and again in 2008 on vinyl. The clarity of the CD recording was always exquisite but the quality on the vinyl seems to take it to the next level – just beautiful. Again, like most of my all-time favourite albums, Red Apple Falls is conceptually held together by a narrative thread. This album has several recurring images and motifs, mostly about red apples and widows. The general theme of the lyrics is this – the narrator has moved to a small town called Red Apple Falls and started a relationship with a widow. However, he’s a stranger in town and can’t really fit in. The songs are deeply melancholic, subtle, trance-inducing, captivating.

I first started playing this a lot in about August 97. We sold three copies at the record store I worked at — one to a girl I knew from the pub, and one to a guy who by chance would become my flatmate in January of 98. I bought the third copy and that was pretty much it. I remember playing it in the shop one day on a Sunday afternoon and not liking it. Then I played it again a week later and it totally hit me. It was the double tracked vocal on “Blood Red Bird” that first caught my interest. In August 97, I moved into a new flat with friends of mine and I had this little cabin room out the back, unattached to the main house, so I was kind of isolated out there with my stereo, and I remember how the mood of this album defined my own predicament at that time. Bill Callahan’s voice consequently became one of my best friends.

On the first umpteen listens, these songs sounded like they would never evolve into anything tuneful, the instrumentation is that sparse and understated. Ultimately though, they have the most beautiful quiet subtle melodies I’ve ever heard. It just takes a bit of patience, and I guess when I first discovered the album I was in the perfect state of mind to fully get it. I think that’s what makes a great album great for each individual – if you get into it at a time that corresponds perfectly with what’s going on in your life then you gel with it, you fuse with it. Plenty of great albums out there, but a true great is all about timing. Enough already Bumstead. Set the review rolling

The Morning Paper…let’s just start by saying that this is one of the best album opening tracks ever (I know, I said that about “Plainsong” on Disintegration). I don’t even know how to describe the instrumentation. It’s a sort of thumbed thing on the guitar, repetitive and sparse, just two notes being plucked with a crystal string-twang clarity, but there are other minor things happening in the background too, like horns playing a little motif.  I love the opening line; “The morning paper is on its way / It’s all bad news on every page / So roll right over and go to sleep.”  He then says he “has this thing / Red Apple Falls,” which suggests to me that what follows is a kind of dream, as we will see. The song builds in intensity, the horns play their motif and the song is over quite quickly, maybe three minutes tops.

Blood Red Birdand he’s back in bed again, getting woken up in the middle of the night by a dying bird. A very plaintive guitar strum keeps this one chugging along to the beat. The tune is nice, but it’s the singing and chorus that carry this so well. When he sings the chorus his voice is double-tracked. The effect is dreamy. He sings about this bird that’s been injured. And he’s wondering what caused this, what hand “bent it to bust / to be useless.” Callahan sings about how “we can continually sink into each other / just deep enough to rip out a bit more flesh / when we move away.” This is what I take to be the widow in the next song. He’s just stopping by for a while. “Like an arrow / I was only passing through.”  It’s quite poignant sounding and simple but evocative of what’s to follow. The bird acts as some kind of objective correlative for the injury he’s about to cause to the widow.

Red Apples…”I went down to the river to meet the widow / She gave me an apple it was red.”  Very plaintive organ droning in background. Slow sparse guitar strums playing about three notes up, three notes down. “She wanted nothing in return / I gave her nothing in return,” he sings. He knows he’s only using her, and is going to cause some pain. There’s something very haunting about this song. In the last verse, “the ghost of her husband, beautiful as a horse / pulled up in an apple cart / full of millions of red apples for us.”  It seems the ex-husband’s ghost wants their relationship to work, but the narrator knows it’s not going to, and that’s why he sounds so despairing and distant, as a forlorn piano line leads the song back to the dream.

I Was A Strangeris a little more upbeat, changing the mood. Piano and pedal steel give this a real country feel at the start which leads into a fairly lively drum beat and lovely country pop tune.  “I was a stranger / When I came to town / Just yesterday.” The lyric is wonderfully creepy. He asks all the women of the town “Why did you believe every word I said? / Why did you believe a stranger?”  He says if you think he’s a stranger in this town, “you should’ve seen what I was in the last town / If I was a stranger, I was worse than a stranger / I was… I was… / I was well known.” These lyrics build to a climax. The pedal steel is beautiful in this short melodic song.

To Be Of UseCallahan’s despairing attitude comes to the fore here. Another five-note arpeggio plucked over and over and that’s about the only instrumentation. Here, it’s like he’s come out of the dream and reports on what’s been dreamt so far. “Most of my fantasies are of making someone else come / Most of my fantasies are to be of use,” he sings and that’s the main sentiment here. He sounds like a hopeless reject. It’s pretty lonely sounding stuff and it comes across as pretty real too. The chap is genuinely forlorn. It’s a quiet sorrowful song about a man struggling to fit into the world in any way whatsoever, but needing human contact, just like a Raymond Carver character. Then an electric guitar line drops in the mix, with high-toned pretty notes on the pedal steel.

Red Apple Falls…and now we reach the title track which slowly becomes louder and audible and moves back into the ‘dream’ about the widow. “The widow says it’s hard to live / With a man / A man like me / The widow says / It’s hard to live on the lonely version / Of love I give.”  Later this song harks back to the lyrics of ‘Blood Red Bird.’  “The widow says I broke her first / And of course I say just the reverse / And we can’t get past this /  Something she did on the fourteenth of June / Because of something I said on the thirteenth of June / And we can’t get past this.” This is a reiteration of those lines about “ripping out a bit more flesh as we move away.” They’re stuck and this is where the short-lived relationship goes wrong. The music is a slow plodding thing with a lovely pedal steel floating away in the background. A light strum adds momentum, but that wailing pedal steel seems to hold the song back and emphasize the idea that “we can’t get past this.” The song continues to seesaw back and forth the same up-down swing of the pedal steel until the tune fades out.

Ex-Con…is the single and the first ‘pop’ song. It’s strangely recorded at a much louder volume than the rest of the album. It’s a great little number with great lyrics. “Whenever I get dressed up / I feel like an ex-con trying to make good.” This is kind of how I always felt in Japan when I had to wear a suit. You felt like a fraud. “Clean jacket and tie, feel like such a lie / And when I go to your house / Feel like I’m casing the joint.” And one of the best lines on the whole album; “In the grocery store, in line behind a mother and child / I’m going to take that child / I’m going to take that child / I’m going to take that child.” Something very funny about this song. It’s too dark to be serious. It’s all about disconnect. “Out on the streets I feel like a robot by the river / Looking for a drink / But alone in my room / I feel such a warmth for the community.”  Quite a darkly satirical song – very Bill Callahan. Great tune.

Inspirational…here he’s sort of back out of the dream and offering advice; “If you’re living the unliveable / By loving the unlovable / It’s time to start changing the unchangeable / By leaving the unleavable.”  Beautiful wild pedal steel lines soar in the  background. The songs builds to a slow crescendo while Callahan sings “da do doo doo” before singing another verse quite similar to the first.  This seems to be the ‘lesson’ he’s learned from his dream. Perhaps he’s singing about leaving the widow; “Its time to start breaking the unbreakable / And replacing the irreplaceable.” A slow song that builds by adding layers of instrumentation – tambourine, piano, strummed acoustic guitar. Very nice. There’s even a falsetto chorus that builds up in the background mixing with the pedal steel. It’s a very cool song working as a summary or culmination of the preceding seven songs.

Finer Days…hmm…13 years with this album and this song never fails to disappoint me. This is the only one whose tune never quite gets over the hump. It’s too subtle, too sparse. The song is mostly unmemorable. Usually the last song I ever remember with this album is Inspirational.  I guess this song is meant as ‘fade out’ or something to wind down with. Lyrically I guess it makes sense. It’s all about how he’s broken out of his mould of loner loser despair into “finer days.” His old friends want him to “stay down down down,” implying that he has no friends. He’s more alone than ever, but at least he’s broken free from Red Apple Falls or this thing that was holding him back. The music is just one guitar note plucked over and over, with a couple of mildly musical interjections and consequently it’s a bit boring. “And so I find myself isolated / Isolated in these fine fine days.”

This is Alan Bumstead’s 4th Favourite Album of the 90s


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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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2 Responses to Smog, Red Apple Falls, 1997

  1. Anonymous says:

    Smog Rulezz!

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