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Comedy or pathos? 

Bill Callahan likes his lo-fi Americana dry and smoggy

Some people prefer their humor grim and dry, delivered with deadpan intensity. Mining the fine line between comedy and tragedy, Bill Callahan's musical elegies and vignettes (performed under his moniker Smog) often turn on unreliable narrators whose misanthropy and misfortune may be more than a little self-induced.

Take, for example, "Your New Friend," from his relationship-driven EP Kicking A Couple Around. The song's narrator, caught in a love triangle, finds himself sleeping in the living room and blasting his radio "to show that I don't care about anything you could say to your new friend." Over a rustic acoustic strum, the narrator moans about his lover's infidelity before delivering his parting punch line: "Don't get me wrong, I know I'm still your boyfriend."

Smog's droll delivery is not for folks who require humor with a laugh track. "I think people have a problem with delivery," Callahan says, speaking by cellphone from a stop in Arkansas. "Like. . . funny music should sound like Weird Al Jankovic, otherwise it's serious."

Callahan, an underground-music icon who's released a dozen long-players in about as many years, talks in the languid pace of his songs, measuring his words one at a time. He admits to liking the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, whose works, such as The Cherry Orchard, include characters mired in situations they do little to rectify, preferring to bemoan their fates. Chekhov wrote with the tone and pacing of tragedy rather than comedy, but while The Cherry Orchard acknowledges the pain inherent in the human condition, it also pokes fun at our own culpability for our misfortunes.

Callahan's tales also swing from sad to sardonic. But unlike his earlier albums, the most recent Smog releases -- 2003's Supper and this year's A River Ain't Too Much To Love -- find Callahan exploring his characters' psyches more directly. "In the past I used more ulterior motives, trying to present opposing views in a song, so you have to switch around what is being really said," Callahan says. "I haven't really been doing that on the last couple records. I've been more straight-forward."

In the decade and a half that Callahan has been making music, he's worked with a number of styles and genres. He's best known for the spooky, lo-fi Americana of his first few albums, but he also favors dirge-like blues, country twang with pedal-steel guitar and even light-hearted folk-rock. One of his earliest lo-fi experiments was "I am Star Wars," from 1994's Julius Caesar, which features loops of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman" and "Start Me Up" over a crappy drum machine beat. "Early on I was very naive," he says. "[Lo-fi] was just a way to break things down into the simplest, most manageable components. It was a way of learning and being able to do it myself, because I wasn't ready to put myself into anyone else's hands, like in the studio."Callahan says he's branched out somewhat over the years and plans to continue exploring fuller arrangements. "With [A River Ain't Too Much to Love], I was playing guitar in a different style, and I wanted to keep things a little more basic. But I think I'm always interested in different ideas for the future," he says. I think other records down the road will have more things going on."

Whatever musical or production style he chooses for his next Smog album, you can be sure it will explore the tyrannies of the heart and the gluttony with which we indulge our tragic flaws. Does he think it's comedy or pathos?

Actually, he points to the work of short-story writer Raymond Carver: "I love how he just kind of describes things. He doesn't tell you what he thinks about them."

Best of Smog

• Wild Love (1995). Rich arrangements and loping rock, bookended by the dark odes to isolation, "Bathysphere" and "Goldfish Bowl."

• Kicking A Couple Around (1996). Callahan has released a lot of EPs, but none rivals these four songs for concisely capturing his aesthetic.

• Knock Knock (1999). His warmest collection, these 10 tracks find Callahan's characters with surprising hope.

• Supper (2003). Evinces more musical and emotional directness. The honesty of the sentiments doesn't preclude humor, but it does leaven the sometimes bitter bite of Callahan's songs.

Smog appears at the Visulite Theatre Tuesday, August 16, at 8pm. Tickets are $10. For more info, call 704-358-9200 or visit www.visulite.com.

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