Pop: Genius of doom and gloom

OUTSIDE, THE Holloway Road is an unashamed celebration of maleness, pubs packed with beery Arsenal supporters waving flags and singing their hallowed theme tune "Jesus Said Paddy'. God knows what it would have been like had they had anything to cheer about.

Inside an absolutely packed venue, many people avoiding the end-of-season celebrations, Bill Callahan, for he is Smog, and a pair of backing musicians are attempting to make sense of something far more complicated than goal difference or the offside laws, and much gloomier than mere relegation. Life, that is.

Over a series of gradually more refined records, culminating in this year's quite brilliant Knock Knock, Callahan has carved a niche as the doom-mongers' doom-monger, somewhere between Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen, though without the joie de vivre of the former - or the latter, come to think of it. But Knock Knock's advanced arrangements - a children's choir, atmospheric if minimalist strings, and even some great rocking tunes like the ones Lou Reed used to write - prove an insurmountable challenge to the trio of Callahan, a drummer and another guitarist who occasionally plays keyboards.

A tentative "I Was a Stranger" from 1997's excellent Red Apple Falls, sets heads nodding sagely, and the relentless monochrome melodicism of "The Morning Paper" is even better, almost painfully intense. But "Cold Blooded Old Times", a dissection of dysfunctional family relationships which includes possibly the year's most chilling line ("How can I stand and laugh with the man who redefined your body?"), just scrapes along where the recorded version, er, choogles. The relentlessly mechanical current single "Held" and the album standout "No Dancing" sound like three-fifths of a band kicking about waiting for the other two to turn up to a rehearsal, and the brilliant "Ex-Con", once like New Order with proper lyrics, here becomes a minimal ominous boogie, before crawling into a feeble, scratchy, indie-pop conclusion. Worst of all, the magnificent "Hit the Ground Running", on disc two chords stretched over six minutes which seem like two, is morbidly slow, the drummer apparently bored and desperate to break out. Gentler songs - the lovely "River Guard" and the stripped "Let's Move to the Country" - fare better, with Callahan quite in control and singing beautifully.

The problem is that the unassuming Callahan, hairstyle from a Republican candidate's election literature and looking like a character from a Todd Solondz movie, seems so uncomfortable up there that it transmits to the increasingly restless audience. These wonderful songs deserve either a full band treatment or the naked emotion of one man and his acoustic guitar, not a clumsy compromise. This man is undoubtedly some kind of genius, but the show did not explain why.

Steve Jelbert