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Souls, Scared of Chaka, and Smog

By Michael Henningsen

Alibi Value Scale Formula:
Total minutes of good music @ 50¢/minute minus total minutes of bad music @ 25 ¢/minute = Value

Souls Bird Fish or Inbetween (Trauma/Interscope)
Good Minutes: 0
Blah Minutes: 0 (no cash value)
Bad Minutes: 35:32 (-$8.83)
Actual Retail Price: $15.97
Value: -$8.83

Wow! An album made up entirely of crap. That makes for a Weekly Alibi first since the introduction of the Value rating scale: a record you should be paid to listen to. Congratulations to Souls, and good luck to them on that Bush tour.

Scared of Chaka Automatic 7-inch (Empty Records)
Good Minutes: N/A
Blah Minutes: N/A (no cash value)
Bad Minutes: N/A
Actual Retail Price: N/A
Value: N/A

Note: The Value rating scale, brilliant as it is, doesn't work well when it comes to most singles--they just aren't long enough to get a fair shake. The scale will be modified at some point to accommodate them, but until then, we'll revert to the stone age coffee cup scale. Sorry for the confusion. --MH

Over the course of the three songs on Chaka's latest Empty release, they reiterate the fact that punk rock is a living, breathing art form. "Automatic," the record's A-side, is by far the centerpiece, which isn't to say that either of the B-side tracks--"Purple Lipstick" and "Gone"--are throwaways. Far from it. The former is a near relentless chime that resolves into one of the most inventive bridge sections I've ever heard. The latter, although not quite the edge-of-your-seat gem that is "Purple Lipstick" or the absolute masterpiece that is "Automatic," is effective nonetheless.

Recorded by Simon Welter at a super-secret location somewhere in Albuquerque, Chaka's latest 7-inch is raw and thankfully bereft of over-compression and studio slickness. But it's several cuts above your basic garage recording. Chaka sound exceptionally powerful here, fueled by Ron Skrasek's definitive drumming and furthered by Dameon Waggoner's rumbling bass--somehow a bigger standout on this release than usual. Vocalist/guitarist Dave/Yanul/Cisco Hernandez is characteristically pumped.

This one's yet another in a long line of hyperactive, exceptional punk rock releases churned out with surprising expertise by Scared of Chaka on several labels in the past 18 months. And it's as good a place as any to start. !!!!

Smog Red Apple Falls (Drag City)
Good Minutes: 40:36 ($20.18)
Blah Minutes: 3:22 (no cash value)
Bad Minutes: 0
Actual Retail Price: $13.97
Value: $20.18

Sadness, for Smog mastermind Bill Callahan, isn't just for kicks. It's a way of life and the prime mover behind music that enchants, delights and makes one hell of a case for passing on Prozac in favor of experiencing and embracing all of the exquisite pain life has to offer. Over the course of a handful of homemade releases (most of them available on Drag City), Callahan has pioneered and subsequently honed his own genre of music. Call it "Smog rock."

And his latest is his greatest. Red Apple Falls is sparse, airy and the most beautiful record I've heard since Red House Painters' Songs for a Blue Guitar. Incidentally, Smog make the aforementioned Painters sound like Up With People. And you don't even have to be clinically depressed yourself to enjoy what Smog serve up on their latest. There's twice the melody here and Callahan, considering his apparent mood on previous Smog releases, is downright animated.

Callahan's obsessivness when it comes to lyric writing is also fully intact on Red Apple Falls. The first six songs--of nine total--on the album feature apples, the color red and/or birds. What, exactly, the significance of his vague and repeated imagery is, is left to the listener to decide. But through Callahan's intensely affecting, although painfully restrained, vocal delivery, there's no doubt that whatever's on his mind is earth shattering.

Joined by a couple of drummers, occasional piano, assorted horns and a beautifully ubiquitous pedal steel, Callahan, it would seem, has fleshed out his vision for Smog more clearly than ever before. Red Apple Falls is subtle, yet monumental. Callahan has finally made it safe to be a little sad.

--Michael Henningsen

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