Bill Fox – Shelter From the Smoke [reissue]

January 01, 1970



He would surely
deny it, but Bill Fox is a freakin’ genius. Among the thousands of albums on my
shelves, I have likely returned to Bill Fox’s recordings in the past 10 years
more frequently, more thoroughly, and more consistently than almost any album I
own. I try to avoid trafficking in hyperbole, but I will stand by the statement
that Bill Fox is one of the most important songwriters of the past 20 years.


Back in the
mid-1980s, Bill Fox fronted Cleveland power-punk trio The Mice. Few outside
Ohio ever heard of The Mice, but they most certainly caught the attention of
one of Dayton’s more successful residents: Robert Pollard. The Mice were very
much an influence on early Guided by Voices. GbV’s four-track aesthetic was not
lost on Fox, either, when in 1997 and 1998, he released two of the most
astonishing albums that only a handful of people have ever heard – and those
who have treasure them. Scat’s reissue of Shelter
From the Smoke
is an important step toward helping listeners rediscover a
man whose music has so profoundly affected the lives of those who’ve found it.


Fox’s two solo
albums are such intensely personal works that it is nearly impossible to write
about outside of one’s own experience with them – so I won’t even try. I first
stumbled upon Shelter at Vintage
Vinyl on a weekend trip to St. Louis. The bin card proclaimed: “If you like
Guided by Voices, Bob Dylan, Badfinger, and Harry Smith, you must buy this
album.” How could I refuse? On first listen, the album just seemed like a
wonderful lo-fi mix of pop, folk, and traditional with a DIY sensibility. But
as with any thoughtful work, the more you listen, the more it reveals. First is
that voice, which careless listeners might be tempted to dismiss as Anglophiliac
posturing (but of course all great singing is about “finding a voice”); Fox’s
timbre is both instantly recognizable, inviting, intriguing, and ultimately
fitting to the context of his songs.


The opening
jangle of “Over and Away She Goes” is immediately infectious before Fox even
sings a note, and once he begins “spilling grooves” and reminding the listener
that “It’s not her hair I’m tangled in / It’s just another sense of wonder,”
you’re hooked. “Up and down, a chill returns.” Indeed. Only the tune’s
deceptive optimism is soon to be followed up with “spilling tears of rum” over
lost love in “Appalachian Death Song.” Some songs on Shelter feel almost voyeuristic, as we listen in on an intimate
whisper between Fox and his cassette recorder, while others let loose with an
early Who-like abandon, such as on the anthemic pop medley of “Let’s Be Buried
Together”/”Love Ain’t No Feeling.”


Fox’s capitalist
critique is not a stretch to read. “Every day’s a Freedom Bash,” Fox sings,
“Mama, if you got the cash” in the Dylan nod “I’m Not Over Loving You.”  With “Sara Page,” Fox warns, “You ain’t
nothin’ on account of your finery,” punctuating with a prostitution metaphor.
“A buck a dance for Sara Page / Every evening it’s the same ol’ stage / And
every night she’ll be going down again for a ten” can speak either specifically
to the feelings musicians can have when they introduce something as personal as
their songs to the cold and calculating machinations of commerce, or more
broadly to what anyone who works to earn a wage or a salary faces when they
trade their labor on the market, only to continually feed a self-serving cycle
of unfulfillment. The turned trick, as Fox mournfully describes it–whether
literal or metaphorical–decries the act of sacrificing to the market in the
service of employers (and/or for the desire of johns) that which should be
intimate and personal.


For those
commodity fetishists who love a heartfelt critique of capital, and yet still
find packaging to be important, this issue of Shelter comes in a lovely cardboard gatefold LP-style sleeve
(little touches like these make a tangible difference). This issue will also be
available for the first time on vinyl, and both versions include bonus tracks
of Fox’s single releases. They are a joy to hear. Last year, I picked up a comp
entitled I Stayed Up All Night Listening
to Records
solely for a Fox track I didn’t have (“Eclectrocution” – not
included here). The moment of popping open the CD and hearing that song was
pure bliss. Listening to the extras on this issue has had the same effect. For
the past ten years, the two Fox solo albums are all we’ve had from sessions
that presumably yielded over 100 songs. The only reason this reissue of Shelter doesn’t get a 10 is so as to
give Scat that much more incentive to follow through with their planned 2010 reissue
of Fox’s other stellar solo release, Transit
. And if they can manage to release the lost Bill Fox third album
from these same sessions, I will give it an 11 before I even crack the
shrinkwrap–without hesitation. That’s a promise (I can’t speak for what my
editor will do).


Standout Tracks: “Sara Page” “Let’s Be Buried Together”
“Over and Away She Goes” EDWARD BURCH


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