Callahan called Knock Knock his album for teenagers, though it’s hard to know how seriously he meant it; this was the era when he still preferred to conduct interviews by fax, and journalists often came away grumbling that they’d been made fools of. (In truth, his answers were simply smarter than the vast majority of their questions.) He told interviewers that the record cover—with its jagged lightning bolt and peevish-looking wildcat—was meant to represent objects that young folks like. “Some of the themes are things I associate with teenage years—having big plans, thinking you can live like a gypsy,” he told the Chicago Reader. “There’s a lot about moving and traveling on the record. Most adults let that die.” Even the hand-drawn text on the sleeve had a vaguely heavy-metal shape, like a band logo a kid might scrawl on his Trapper Keeper.
No stranger to classic rock, Callahan had previously sampled the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and referenced AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” This time, he said, he wanted to make anthems, and he did. “Held” is an incandescent swamp rocker. Palm-muted guitars give “No Dancing” the feel of something you might have heard emanating from pickup trucks doing donuts in parking lots, the weeds littered with empties. “Hit the Ground Running” is a straight-ahead mid-tempo Southern rocker, wrapping an inspirational chorus about fleeing the country for the open road around a far bleaker frame: “Bitterness is a lowest sin/A bitter man rots from within/I’ve seen his smile, yellow and brown/The bitterness has brought him down.” Its finale, complete with perkily ascending strings and that jubilant children’s choir, is an infallible day-brightener.
These riff-heavy songs gave Knock Knock a quality that people weren’t used to hearing from Smog albums: It sounded fun. That was especially true of “Cold Blooded Old Times,” a highlight on a record that hardly wants for stellar songs. Like Callahan’s best work, “Cold Blooded Old Times” is sneaky, smuggling the evil that men do inside a deceptively appealing, practically quaint frame. Picking up the ’60s-flavored skip and shuffle of Red Apple Falls’ “Ex-Con,” it sounds at first almost peppy, a straight-up dance number complete with an irresistible, indelible chorus. (That catchiness carried it all the way to 2000’s High Fidelity soundtrack, where it featured alongside songs from the Kinks, the Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan.) But listen past the strumming and the handclaps, and a darker picture emerges: It’s a story of abuse, of a father—whether the song’s subject’s, or someone else’s, it’s not clear—who beat his wife, terrified his children, and possibly carried out even more unspeakable acts. It is a chilling song wrapped in a cozy sweater of a chord change, with one of the all-time great lines in Callahan’s oeuvre: “Cold blooded old times/The type of memories/That turn your bones to glass.” It’s an image so vivid, so tactile, it seems almost like something you could hold in your hand—a small, glinting monument to cruelty and shame.
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