Bill Callahan: Dream River
Similar Artists: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Cat Power, Nick Cave, Mark Lanegan
Genre: Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Label: Drag City
I find myself asking a lot of questions when I listen to Bill Callahan’s music. Though he has abandoned many of his experimental and lo-fi tendencies along with his Smog alias, his music has retained a certain unknowable presence, and the more I listen to his work, the less I seem to comprehend it. Can music this simple really sound this strange? Can a song where the most jarring instrument is a flute still be considered avant-garde? Would my parents like this music? Was there more music like this in the olden-days? Why isn’t Bill Callahan putting any effort into his vocals? After further analysis I have found that the answers to these questions are: yes, yes, no, kind of, and most importantly, because he doesn’t feel like it.
Bill Callahan’s fourth album under his birth name, Dream River, is the continuation of his ode to Americana that began with 2011’s Apocalypse. Song titles such as “Spring”,”Summer Painter” and “Winter Road” should give you an inkling towards the kind of imagery presented throughout these 8 tracks. It’s beautiful, introspective music that you could easily imagine yourself listening to on a long drive out to the country, preferably during the wee morning hours. Although Bill Callahan is not easily categorized, Dream River certainly sounds like a step closer into the traditional for the late in career artist. This idea of traditional vs. nontraditional plagues this album more than any of his previous ones.
Thankfully, the purpose of these songs isn’t strictly to evoke the beauty of the countryside. Actually, for an album with such clear production, uncluttered instrumentation and basic lyrical themes, it’s a hard set of songs to wrap your head around. While it’s arguably Bill Callahan’s most immediate album, the album’s lasting appeal isn’t nearly as apparent. Part of this is because Dream River isn’t an album that has much in the way of high or low points. There’s no single track that defines Dream River; in other words, there is no track as all-encompassing as “America!” (although “Summer Painter” does come close). Instead, the album drifts along naturally and peacefully like a river would itself, without ever causing you to feel tempted to hit the “next” button.
The arrangements — while not unfathomably complex or intricate — are woven together beautifully, and often evolve slowly into full band jam sessions. “Seagull” charters a folk song’s journey into stoner rock, and “Summer Painter” is littered with spaced out drones and an increasingly ominous tone that doesn’t let up throughout its 6:30 running time. Violins, (or fiddles, if you must) may be the defining instrument here, as they carry many of these songs to unexpected heights and coalesce with acoustic and electric guitars to create impressive rhythms. Even when these songs aren’t lengthy, they feel like it, because there is such a slow and steady build. Also, the way Callahan elongates his words and stretches them out into the abyss is another story all together.
Despite the fact that Bill Callahan sounds completely stress free on the majority of these tracks (“Small Plane” in particular), his voice is immense, and you will learn to hang onto his every syllable, eager to hear how he pronounces the next string of words. His lyrics are actually rather down to earth, but the subtleties in his vocals come off as unique, experimental, and very satisfying. He is rarely, if ever, truly singing, but he’s not simply talking either. His hybrid of speaking/singing is an interesting mixture, and since his vocals are always up front in the mix, we have plenty of availability to dissect them for all they’re worth. The way Callahan emphasizes certain words over others, and holds onto notes when you least expect it — while simultaneously giving off he vibe that he isn’t trying very hard — is simply magical. He’s commanding the music laid behind him without completely adhering to it.
There’s a lingering feeling that Dream River isn’t as ambitious as previous Bill Callahan releases; that it’s merely a continuation of previous themes without much in the way of expansion. While the lyrics and instrumentation are undoubtedly as sly and expressive as ever, they do little to broaden the Callahan repertoire. This is where the consensus of Dream River will vary, as your experience with it is dependent on how you like your albums. People who want a statement rather than a set of great songs may find themselves to be disappointed. However, it’s undeniable that this is an album that is completely at peace with itself. From the unhurried pace, to the relaxing lyrical themes and calming grooves, this is what freedom sounds like.
1.) The Sing*
2.) Javelin Unlanding
3.) Small Plane*
5.) Ride My Arrow
6.) Summer Painter*
8.) Winter Road
Album Highlight – *