Wednesday, September 18, 2013

album review: 'dream river' by bill callahan

You know, I can't believe I'm saying this, but here it is: I think I might be softening my opinion on white guys with acoustic guitars.

I know. Believe me, I'm as shocked as you guys inevitably are. But really, it's not quite as simple as my tastes changing but more in line with a hunt for something I've had some trouble finding in music: texture. Keep in mind this isn't a reflexive hatred of pop music either, even though pop can have some of the least amounts of texture in music as a genre, but rather a search for music that has feeling and is organic and comes from a place of real emotion and depth. And while I doubt I'll ever have enough passion for acoustic music that I'll teach myself guitar or something, I have realized that more instrumental texture tends to survive the sanding process of the music industry if one goes to the independent scene. 

Because when it comes down to it, I'm a guy who cherishes honest emotions and well-written songs rooted in those emotions. That's one reason I tend to like country and folk over the general 'acoustic' scene - if you're just writing songs to pick up chicks and get laid, you're going to be dismissed as a hapless novice by songwriters who have a real story to tell. And if said stories can be paired with rich, gripping instrumentation that deftly accents and emphasizes the elements of the story... well, that's ultimately where I find plenty of my favourite songs from acts like Bob Dylan and Nick Cave and Richard Thompson and others. 

So with that in mind, let's talk about Bill Callahan.

Now for those of you who don't know, Bill Callahan has been around the edges of the indie acoustic scene since the 90s, often performing under the name of Smog. Only in recent years has he chosen to perform under his own name and release a series of critically acclaimed albums steeped in folk and Americana. So, as somebody who likes both genres and who was seeking some great instrumental texture from a man who has spent over 20 years making music, I was interested to see how his new album Dream River turned out. And...

Dear god, this album is beautiful. Bill Callahan's Dream River is not just a superb example of modernized folk and Americana, it's also a haunting and impressively detailed album that might just be one of the best albums of the year - not kidding. It was everything I was hoping for from this guy and more.

Now I went into this particular exercise searching for instrumental texture, and if we're looking at an act that has that rich production and texture, Bill Callahan would fit the bill. I would have a hard time calling this album just a white guy with an acoustic guitar, because most of the guitars are nestled at the back of the mix, giving most of the songs a quiet, seething energy, without the suppressed anger of post-punk but all of the simmering swell just waiting to explode at the right points. Instead, Callahan's rich, deeper voice is at the top of the mix, a more natural fit for folk as his voice has deepened with age. If I'll be honest, it's still a little too reserved for my tastes - the emotion is more controlled and carefully delivered, which dampens some of the rawness I was hoping for - but it's still powerful all the same when he does reveal shreds of vulnerability. This album is a stylistic shift for Callahan into something more downbeat and melancholic, and while you can tell it's a new fit for him, he has adjusted to the quieter, more-stripped down notes surprisingly effectively. 

And to compliment his voice, Callahan has brought the raw, almost country strings and reedy pan pipes to the front of the mix, only letting the rough edges of the guitar slide through to augment the melody in subtle ways. What I love about this production is that it very much serves the theme of the album - some of the sounds representing more intimate, quieter emotions and feelings that are kept close, while the louder guitars that hold some of those suppressed, heavier emotions are kept carefully restrained until the very few incidences where they are allowed to burst forth. Coupled with the hollow-sounding drums that could almost represent the passage of time, the album's instrumentation and production neatly mirrors one of the primary themes of the album: that of the lone wanderer, who seeks companionship but only in his own way, quite comfortable with his wry, intimate commentary on the proceedings around him. This is a conversation with a close friend who is always on the road, who may at many points be alone but is never lonely.

Now we have to talk about the songwriting, the true area where this album glows with burnished professionalism and poetry. Bill Callahan has long ago made an art of paining a vivid picture with words, and saying a lot while writing very little, and both of these excellent traits on display here. The technical songwriting, as analogous to the instrumentation, has been pared down, more of an ongoing rhyme or free-flowing story than carefully constructed verse and chorus, and Callahan is a good enough songwriter that it definitely works throughout this album. The opening song, 'The Sing', is a gorgeous example of how Callahan can recreate a scene damn near perfectly in the mind, in this case being alone and weary in a dark hotel bar. This song sets the traveler motif for the album excellently in the final lines: 'We're all looking for a body / or a means to make one sing' - it's Billy Joel's 'Piano Man' in two lines, and it's incredible how much pathos in which Callahan infuses those lyrics. The world might change around them, but there are some things - and some people - who will always stay the same.

There are two other primary motifs besides the traveler that Callahan brings to the table through on this album, both of which compliment that underline the overarching theme of quiet isolation and connection: that of the river (which symbolizes the passage of time) and that of seasons, which underscores the progression of the final five songs on the album. The seasonal motif is where I feel Callahan gets the most from this album, as it's a beautiful subversion of 'traditional' emotions associated with said seasons in popular culture. 'Spring' is supposedly the time of youth, wild coupling and making love, and that might be song lyrically Callahan presents on the surface, but the song is brooding and sarcastic and pretty dark, recognizing these fleeting connections for what they are, branding it as the whims of a careless mind. 'Summer Painter', easily another entry into the list of fantastic songs that Callahan has written, is a story telling of the lonely guy who repaints and renames boats and the behest of rich and poor (again, playing on the motif of superficial change), all of which are shattered after a hurricane (and by the way, there is a fantastic instrumental explosion here that does wonders for the atmosphere) - and yet Callahan's lonely, forgotten painter remains intact, and unchanged.

The river motif comes up consistently as well, beginning in the quiet tranquility of 'Small Plane' (a simplistic metaphor for a relationship that has lasted, but elegantly executed) here), and continuing throughout the album in 'Ride My Arrow' (his most overtly political track, criticizing those just 'along for the ride' in the 'talons of an eagle', and those who can't be bothered look at their own history, unpleasant as it might be), returning to the motif that while the river below might muddy, the arrow above it continues to go straight. 'Seagull' explores the exact same motif, this time showing how a sailor might be enticed by a dream of 'home' on the shore, only to eventually return to the sea (basically a quiet, more personal version of 'Brandy' by Looking Glass told from the sailor's perspective), but what this song (and to a different extent, 'Javelin Unwinding') gets is that this mood of chosen isolation and detachment can be dangerous, and it intentionally blurs the line and shows the nuanced picture: how choosing to detach has a price, as it can sunder relationships in two. The final track 'Winter Road' (complete with the subtle whistling of wind in the background) is perhaps the most self-critical, as it directly comments on the tumultuous road life, a life he loves and one he has chosen to keep on pursuing - and then one realizes that the nebulous 'home' he professes to which he's heading might not even exist, but might just be the road on which he continues to travel. And the fact that this album ends on this decidedly melancholy road frames the thesis of this album beautifully - if you choose to take to the road, you will indeed pass by many of the problems of the world, but it's a quiet, lonely road that many will shy away from, and that we should savor those quiet moments in which we can find that fragment of inner peace and connection, whether it be on the road or at a home.

In case you haven't been able to tell already, I love this album. Bill Callahan has written a goddamn masterpiece with beautiful songwriting and striking imagery on Dream River, and this album comes with a high, high recommendation. It's not quite perfect, which means it does earn the 9/10 from me, but dear god, it is definitely something special. If you're a fan of intelligent, textured, descriptive, emotionally evocative albums, you all need to check this yesterday. Dream River is really something special, and I found it tremendously moving. 

It's not always a serene or comfortable album, but that's part of the point - Callahan is telling us those moments of comfort are few and far between, and can be found anywhere. We just have to keep on looking.

1 comment:

  1. "We're All Looking for a body, or a means to make one sing": Bill Callahan "Dream River" Another great review for a great song....Review: