The (Untrustworthy) Narrator

(Smog) tells it like it is. Maybe.


Bill Callahan, the prolific singer-songwriter known parenthetically--literally--as (Smog), is an untrustworthy narrator.

He's been mistakenly maligned as a cold, misogynistic monster, an ontological prankster and a brash whiner. And that is what makes (Smog) intriguing: The first-person character sketches of Callahan's narrative lyrics are delivered with such detached nonchalance that each song sounds like an uncertain someone's most intimate thoughts set to music.

"I try to write something that's just dropping into someone's situation coldly, without judgment," he explains. Like a falsely autobiographical Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen, Callahan dispassionately speak-sings vivid lyrics over music that, especially on recent releases, sounds composed simply to follow and bolster the cadence and tone of the words.

(Smog)'s recently released 11th Drag City album, Supper, is a relatively mellow outing that picks up where 2001's guitar-drenched Rain on Lens left off, seemingly following the personal paradoxes and existential crises of people drifting slowly from willful commitment to emotional necessity.

Callahan blithely mutters on one track, "It's our anniversary and you've hidden my keys/ This is one anniversary you're spending with me." Among other songs hinting at a reluctant acceptance of wedded bliss, the songwriter seems to reveal just enough about his own life to make it all seem more than mere musical storytelling.

"I don't know if there is anything that is truly autobiographical," Callahan ponders. "Anytime you put something into words it becomes a fiction. Definitely, my songs are rooted in my life, but someone else who was there might say that it's not what really happened."

Early (Smog) releases were abject exercises in melodic fumbling soaked in obtrusive distortion. Like a well-worn diary, Callahan's meager 4-track cassette recorder is crammed with anonymous confessions and insecurities. Over time, the constantly relocating troubadour began enlisting the aid of revolving contributors, whose participation continues to give each album its own personality.

In embodying the thoughts of various narrators, (Smog) highlights the ugly, selfish motivations as well as the complex, fallible beauty of the human condition.

"I'm interested in minutiae, the tiny movements people make," Callahan says. "The dip or rise in their voice, where their eyes go." (Dave Clifford)

(Smog) plays Sunday, July 13, at Lola's Room at the Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-5555 ext. 8811. Destroyer also appears. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.


What the Hell
Is Gold Chains?Is Topher Lafata's alter ego hip-hop or something else?

Topher Lafata, a.k.a. Gold Chains, a San Francisco purveyor of a techno-inflected rhyme one might call blip-hop, set lofty ambitions for his new album, Young Miss America.

"I wanted it to be really progressive," Lafata says. "So much retro music has been made during the last three or four years."

A self-professed lover of garage rock, house and techno, Lafata created Gold Chains as a vehicle for his eclectic digital creations. Just as he hoped, Young Miss America never sounds retroactive. While not altogether innovative, constantly changing beat patterns and bare-bones punk guitar challenge GC's gravel delivery, which lies somewhere between Snoop Dogg's cousin RBX and the unfortunate duo Insane Clown Posse.

Live, Gold Chains uses an elaborate electronic setup to help transform him and his entourage into a "cheap, five-dollar En Vogue." With his inventive beats and gruff, over-the-top MCing, Gold Chains would seem a hip-hop act by definition. But Lafata says he sees himself as part of the punk scene--and, in fact, becomes a little defensive when asked about the racial make-up of his live crowds.

While theft (or creative borrowing, if you prefer) is the very essence of pop music, Lafata's musical identity crisis does pose some conundrums. He says the only hip-hop he listens to is what he hears on the radio and criticizes rappers for constant references to sex and riches. What to make of his songs, then, which pulse with cash-money flow and eloquent booty calls?

Lafata chalks it all up as "scathing commentary more often than not." He says he treasures the multiple interpretations in play when Gold Chains drops lyrics about "Gucci boots" and "Prada skirt wrapped around that Cali cootch." Praise? Mockery? Is this hip-hop, or hip-hop's reflection in a broken mirror?

In any case, it seems Topher Lafata might be rapping a slightly different tune than his alter ego--or maybe the two are just operating at different layers of irony. Ultimately, the pop-culture questions Gold Chains raises might be just as entertaining as the rhymes he slings. (David Berman)

Gold Chains plays Wednesday, July 9, at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St. Pleasure Forever and Yellow Swans also appear. 9 pm. $8. 21+.


After two years on this job, Hiss has learned a few things, including music journalism's most important skill. Which is:


Unfair? Yes. Shallow? Absolutely. Fun? Always. Here are the harbingers of doom, along with totally hypothetical examples:

--Press kit includes detailed back story for a band no one has ever heard of. "The Mystick Clouds formed in spring 1998, when two Southern Oregon University students discovered their mutual love for Pink Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra. Guitarist Tito Mendinez and drummer Floyd Thompkins soon 'hooked up' with bassist Todd Weiss. After months of 'jamming,' Todd joined the Peace Corps. Soon Tito and Floyd met Laura Amens, a trained viola player who learned the 'funktastic four-string.' With this revamped trio line-up, the Mystick Clouds were soon gigging throughout the Rogue Valley, including two shows at local radio stations. Now, after experimenting with a number of lineups, the Mystick Clouds relocated to the Portland metro area (Note: always means Tigard), in hopes of...."

--Kit mentions everyone the band has ever opened for. The English language contains no phrase more meaningless than "has opened for...." You know how having a driver's license doesn't make you a Formula One star? Apply that knowledge.

--Kit includes dubious laudatory quotes. "They totally blew me away! We'd love to have 'em back!" --Tommy "Snake" McRose, soundman for HotRumorz Bar & Grille, LaCenter, Wash.

SPECIAL REGGAE & JAM BAND COROLLARIES: Reggae bands often include write-ups published by college newspapers in Boulder, Bozeman, Boise and other Intermountain West college towns crawling with soap-dodging trustafarian SUV jockeys. Disregard. If a jam band includes live reviews from,,, or any other jam-related dot-com, disregard.

--Band photo shows members wearing baseball caps. Be doubly suspicious of backwards baseball caps, which tend to indicate the use of five-string bass.

--The band has only played two shows, but already has a manager. It wouldn't happen to be the guitarist's girlfriend, cousin or brother's best friend Trev, eh?

SPECIAL HIP-HOP COROLLARY: The hip-hop equivalent here is overblown corporate nomenclature. "Bam-Z, CEO, chief accountant, mastermind and controlling partner of the Buz-Tit Rekkidz conglomerate, has been one of Tacoma hip-hop's hottest young dealmakers since graduating from Pacific Lutheran in 2002."

--Kit includes self-serving explanations of song subject matter. "The anthemic rock ballad 'Invisible Chains' portrays a teenager's struggle to defy society's expectations and forge his own creative path. The song draws vividly on singer Roger Tambyne's experience in Bend Public Schools...." Dude, fight the frigging power.

--Kit includes ludicrous claims. "Bringing fresh, some would say revolutionary, sounds to the Northwest rock scene.... Revitalizing the stagnant Seattle music world with their own unique take on heavy metal.... Lighting up stages throughout Outer Southeast Portland.... Leaving audiences slack-jawed and bewildered at their awesome displays of status-quo-shattering rock power.... Taking their trademarked blend of roots reggae and alternative country to a deeper level.... Recognized throughout the Willamette Valley as one of the region's strongest acts...."

All lies, always. And finally, let's not forget...

--Soul patches. Even one, and you're done.