Essential New Music: Smoke Bellow’s “Open For Business”

Open For Business. The title is an invitation, and you don’t need to be a former customer to get in on the deals. Meredith McHugh and Christian Best, Smoke Bellow’s founding members, have been making solid records since 2012. But the Baltimore-by-way-of-Brisbane duo changed the plan, in part by inviting drummer Emmanuel Nicolaidis (formerly of Thrill Jockey combo Thank You) into the firm. His presence has enabled McHugh and Best to re-imagine their work, turning from open-ended, droning songs driven by metronomic beats to music that’s catchier, more fractured and built from the rhythms upward.

Take “Furry Computer 2,” the first single from Open For Business. Nicolaidis’ drumming is forthright, but sparse, with a space where one of the accented beats should be. A doggedly picked guitar and organ repeat over the groove, and over that, McHugh chants impressionistic observations about interspecies connectivity. It’s like watching three tops spinning at once, one suspended over another, yet all three are perfectly synchronized; the effect is lulling hypnotic. 

That’s not the only way to work a groove, of course. Stuttering guitars, clattering percussion and McHugh’s cryptic snatches of  tactical advice flit in and out of the space opened up by stark bass and a locomotive cymbal sizzle on “Fuck On.” And, in a nod to the stripped-down MO of the Young Marble Giants, a sturdy bass line is all that holds “Wrong Size” together. What makes it all work is that each element is simultaneously essential and elusive, so that when a song is done, you’re tempted to play it again just to figure out why it works so well.

—Bill Meyer