Release Date: Sep 17, 2013
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Bill Callahan’s last album as Smog was titled A River Ain't Too Much to Love. Looking back at it, it seems a fitting transition to this second stage of his career. Rustic images of mountains, riverbeds, and desert plains seem to entrance him at every turn and, by this point, they’ve sort of integrated themselves into his waking subconscious. Dream River surely indicates this, existing as both a place and a concept -- a sort of meditative plateau that can only be reached after exploring the furthest points of our small, blue terrestrial dwelling via astral projection.
"The only words I said today are 'beer' and 'thank you,'" Bill Callahan intones on "The Sing. " It's a charming introduction to Dream River, a gracefully brilliant record that often juxtaposes easy comfort with the inevitable void we're all headed for. The music regularly possesses off-kilter pep — full of haze and odd, ear-catching instrumentation (flutes, warped guitars, possibly hand drums) — which works in tandem with Callahan's supremely rare gifts for not only wordplay, but phrasing.
For the past two decades, Bill Callahan has regularly put out a new album every couple of years, like clockwork. Just as impressive is how he has consistently continued to mature as an artist, creating music of increasing depth and beauty. This has been especially true since he dropped the moniker of Smog, and Dream River is an album that showcases Callahan once again at his best yet.
Bill CallahanDream River[Drag City; 2013]By Joshua Pickard; September 24, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetThere is a sense of involuntary awe when exploring the peaks and shadowy recesses of Bill Callahan’s music. In fact, it’s this idea of the personal discovery of significant moments on his albums that has helped to elevate Callahan to his position among indie rock royalty -- that and his extensive and damn fine discography. His music isn’t altogether showy in the most conventional sense, but it is surprising in continually unpredictable ways.
Funny thing about Bill Callahan: he only pulled down the obfuscating shield of his Smog moniker after finally beginning to layer his stark, unfettered art with luscious, subtle decoration. Dream River, either his fourth album or his fifteenth (depending on whether you view the switch to his real name as a dividing line or a noteworthy detail to an impressive body of work), moves at the same ambling pace as previous albums Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle and Apocalypse – albeit with the scent of sweet, sweet soul in its nostrils and a delectable sense of optimism coursing through its countrified blood. That’s not to see Bill’s all outta sombre – those familiar tones’n’moans are all there.
The first thing you notice is that Bill Callahan is in no hurry. On "The Sing", the ballad that opens his warm, weary new album, Dream River, words roll by like cloud formations on a calm day: "Drinking…while sleeping…strangers…unknowingly…keep me company." And afterwards there's a pause as the line hovers there, like something hanging above the doorway into the record's peculiar, intimate universe. In the past, Callahan has compared songwriting to an act of carpentry ("There's this huge block of silence and you carve little bits out of it by making sound"), but never before has one of his records embodied that feeling so richly.
Bill Callahan is now firmly established as a solo artist, free of the Smog construct that obstructed us from, well, you know, ever admitting he was an individual and a true great, capable of writing lyrics that stopped you in your tracks; of being able to orchestrate an atmospheric, dark, funny Americana as plaintive as it was homespun. And he sounds more mature than ever here. That’s not to say he was immature before, but Dream River, Callahan’s fourth album under his own name, is such a deft, balanced and measured record, and sparse in its eight tracks, that it makes you forget this is a man who wrote Dress Sexy At My Funeral, who questioned God and his own place in rock’s hierarchy, and faced up (on record) to having never served in the army for his country.
On Bill Callahan’s previous effort, Apocalypse, he looked outward across the American landscape. The differences between that record and this one end there; Dream River opens with our protagonist in a bar by himself and ends with him in a similar state but on the open road. Between those two points, he’s focused almost entirely inward (with the occasional sprinkling of natural themes as per his M.O.).
Bill Callahan has an uncanny ability to make you think about life. The images are vivid, the language, simple, and the metaphors open to interpretation. He’s a storyteller who could arguably be mentioned in the same breath as troubadours like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, even Johnny Cash; although given his indie-rock pedigree, he’s more likely to remain, at least for the time being, in the fine company of Will Oldham and Richard Buckner.
Bill Callahan’s a charmer. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon/While you slept” he croons on ‘Javelin Unlanding’, before requesting his lover not perish “just yet/and leave me alone on this journey round the sun”. Callahan’s early work as Smog painted him as a lo-fi sex case, but of late he’s adopted a sweeter, eddying Americana, and ‘Dream River’ takes a turn to lush country-soul.
Twenty years into a mighty if relatively unsung career – first as an act called Smog, latterly under his own name – Bill Callahan's oblique, deadpan, understated songs mark him out as one of the most penetrating crafters of the North American language since Leonard Cohen. Dream River, Callahan's 15th-odd album, strengthens that claim further with an album about flying, dying and painting boats. Naturally the painting of boats proves the most cosmic of these activities.
On “America!”, a standout track from his 2011 album Apocalypse, Bill Callahan saluted, in his warm, inimitable baritone, to “Captain Kristofferson,” “Buck Sergeant Newbury,” “‘Leatherneck’ Jones” and “Sergeant Cash. ” As tributes to heroes go, it reflects both a reverence and appreciation for kitsch that’s entirely in character for a songwriter like Callahan. Yet, were the 47-year-old singer to have been born a few decades earlier, he could have easily been peers with greats like Mickey Newbury or Kris Kristofferson.
Dating back to the late ’80s, Bill Callahan’s catalog shows the earmarks of a genius. His early material held the scattershot experimentalism of a young writer intent on reinvention, full to the brim with wild ideas, quickly recording seemingly anything that came to mind. Time would see his musical short stories boiled down to their essentials, producing moments of dark humor and stark minimalism that are hard to shake.
Dream River revolves around a two-word phrase, and Bill Callahan repeats it for you about five or six times in the first song to make sure you don’t miss it. Sitting in a bar alone but for the sleeping strangers around him, he recalls in “The Sing” that the only two words he’s said all day are “beer” and “thankyou.” From there, he takes that simple exchange (asking for a beer, receiving it, and giving thanks) and runs with it, touching on religion, Marvin Gaye cf. erryone’s shared humanity, travelling, love (adjective and verb), and the act of singing itself.
After the urgent sound of 2011's Apocalypse, where Bill Callahan uncharacteristically turned his wry gaze outward to examine America's physical, psychological, and cultural geographies, he returns to a more familiar interior landscape on Dream River. It too was recorded in Texas, features another cover painting by artist Paul Ryan, and guitarist Matt Kinsey is again ever present. Despite the set's more laid-back overall demeanor, something serpentine is at work.
Twenty years in and the singer formerly known as Smog is making the best records of his career. His music is loose and rustic, his writing skirts the heart of the matter instead of bulldozing into it, and his careful deadpan imbues everyday statements with almost mystical resonance. See "The Sing," where he confesses, "The only words I've said today are 'beer' and 'thank you,'" then repeats them like a mantra; or "Small Plane," where the admission "I really am a lucky man" is delivered with just enough hesitation to hint that the truth is more complicated, but not as compelling, as the lie.
Bill Callahan’s voice is remarkable. It melts in your mouth like a soft, butterscotch caramel. It’s a shortbread biscuit baked by angels. It’s generous, caring and comes with a hefty dollop of gravitas; the voice of a well respected, dearly loved and wise older relative, suffused with kindness and understanding.
The last time we heard from Bill Callahan, the end was nigh, and what seemed like the final message to our doomed world was laid out in his gritty and bleak album Apocalypse. Luckily for us, we’ve all survived. But unluckily, this close shave with death has prompted a somewhat misplaced joyous outburst of salvation, which is duly chronicled on Dream River.
Bill Callahan may be easiest to describe by what he isn’t quite: a folkie; a country singer; a cloistered, primitivist weirdo with a four-track recorder; a poet or some other kind of words-only artist. Over the last 23 years, on a string of records made almost exclusively for the Chicago label Drag City, you sense that he’s walked past those doors, revising his ideas, waiting, looking for something. He’s found it.
Within three seconds of Bill Callahan’s new album, the sound of a gorgeous pedal steel seeps into the opening song. It wails like a wordless cry, setting the sumptuous tone of “Dream River,” Callahan’s fourth studio album under his own name since dispensing with the moniker Smog. With eight songs that unfurl to 40 minutes, it’s impeccably crafted and plays off a mercurial tension between Callahan’s voice — a parched yet resonant baritone — and the lush arrangements that envelop it.
A couple of surprising things happened in the run-up to Dream River's release: a press shot of Bill Callahan circulated in which he sports an enormous grin, while its first offering to listeners was a song made over in a dub style. Callahan does smile, of course - anyone who has seen him in concert over the last few years would testify to that - and a diversion into dub is apparently something he had been toying with the last few years (room was left on some of Dream River's arrangements in order to better facilitate this). Paired with a press release promising a "sensual, soulful" sound, though, it all implied that the often guarded Callahan had lightened up some, and, at 47, was about to release a more carefree set than his previous.
Dropping Dream River onto the turntable for the first time, I was struck immediately by just how completely and inescapably Bill Callahan-y it was. There’s that voice, of course: arresting, matter-of-fact, taciturn yet strangely warm, but there’s also the oh-so-Callahan-y lyrics (“Drinking while sleeping / Strangers unknowingly keep me company” and “The only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’”) and the sound, like a breath of fresh mountain air, sparse yet warmed by the rootsy tones of the fiddle. Apocalypse (2011) was a milestone for Callahan, a maturation into just a slightly different kind of artist, focused on simplicity, nature, and iconic American imagery.
Bill Callahan Dream River (Drag City) "Drinkin', while sleepin', strangers unknowingly keep me company in the hotel bar," opens Bill Callahan with "The Sing," pulling the words slowly, heavily from dislocated depths. Everything about the local songwriter's fourth LP since shedding his Smog moniker feels caught in that liminal state of dreaming, of the unconscious tension between observer and participant, passive vessel taking in the world and active force shaping it. Behind his plodding baritone on the opener, the arrangements shift subtly as if informed by the hotel's background soundtrack, thoughts floating between the bars.