REVIEW: Bill Callahan - "Dream River"

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Bill Callahan - Dream River
Record Label - Drag City
Release Date - September 17, 2013

"Well, the only words I've said today are 'beer' and 'thank you.' Beer.  Thank you." If you're looking for two examples of great lyricists and also two very contrasting lyrical voices, you couldn't do better than comparing the new record by Bill Callahan, Dream River, with Neko Case's latest. Callahan's always proved himself to be a sly songwriter. His Smog records were filled with askew imagery, tongue-in-cheek lines intermingled with sincerity, desire, and moments of transcendence.  While the genius of Case's record is its steadfastness, clarity, and precision, then the beauty Callahan's new record is just the opposite. Here, the listener revels in askance, diversion, odd similes, meandering song construction, and (here's what Case and Callahan share) an indomitable narrative voice.

Callahan's last three records, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, Apocalypse, and Dream River, continue the fabled singer-songwriter's career while expanding his musical palate.  Woke on a Whaleheart, his first post-Smog record, while bringing a number of new instruments into the fold seemed to hold onto a page out of Smog's lo-fi play book. These three records, however, have left lo-fi way in the dirt.  The subtle and textured guitar of "Small Plane" seems to float somewhere with Callahan's distinctive baritone pushing harmony and texture in the song as the gentle whine of harmonics hover through the subconscious percussion. With each of these records, Callahan has seemed to build and grow a new, distinctive vocabulary for his songs.  Dream River is this vocabulary's most mature and sophisticated yet. It's as if Callahan is drawing the listener in, like that old Faulkner (or Arrested Development) trick of naming everyone (nearly) the same thing to make sure the reader is paying attention. The gentle ebbing of "Small Plane" and it's somber chorus -- "I really am a lucky man" -- seems to weave one of those uniquely Callahan narratives being both at complete peace and unease at the same time. 

Dream River feels, above all, like a band record. One of the first things that will jump out to you is the amount of woodblock percussion in it.  I haven't heard this much woodblock since junior high.  The crisp, earthy sound never seems to tire as it morphs on about every song from the rhumba-esque rhythm of "The Sing" to the abstraction of "Summer Painter." Then, it might be the extensive flute usage, giving tonal texture and a bad ass solo in "Javelin Unlanding" or the gentle wa-wa pedal which seems to creep up underneath the seat as the fiddle saws away on the chorus of on "The Sing," or listen as it ripples through the beginning of "Spring." The cohesion and instrumentation is impeccable as Callahan seems to find the correct sound to insert into each song while maintaining a unique construction on the entire album. 

In many ways this is just about as far from lo-fi as we can get.  The rerelease of the fantastic Mountain Goat's All Hail West Texas this year provides a good counterpoint. There, anything would serve to get the narrative out.  Here, the narrative and song are so intertwined that its impossible to have one without the other. I'm not attempting to equate Callahan or even Smog to The Mountain Goats, but raising the comparison for the sake of, well, comparison.  To be fair, Callahan has always dabbled more toward the silences that Darnielle has. Take, for example, the minimalist expression of a song "Teenage Spaceship" from Knock Knock compared to the fevered strumming of "Jenny" from All Hail West Texas. But, it's a fallacy to even compare Callahan's output now to his output then. I mean, it's 2013, for gods sake, can't we get over what was vanguard and focus on what is now?

If anything, listening to Callahan now just reinforces how great Smog was and how great Dream River is. Two decades into his career, he's still among the best simile formers in the business -- "a power that moves things / neurotically / like a widow / with a rosary." The sort of hackneyed, happenstance, deliberately paced poetry that drops like pearls from Callahan's mouth never seem to get tired.  He has that mark of genius -- an honestly unique and unquestionably original perspective. What makes Dream River confirm this mantle is how different it sounds from the Bill Callahan we knew (even on two records ago) and yet how familiar. How he's able to weave together his past and present into one dynamite statement of record.


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