Bill Callahan has a new album.
That's right, one of the greatest songwriters you’ll ever encounter has recorded a new set of tracks – approaching his twentieth album in as many years – as if he planned it that way. That kind of persistence and prolificacy is usually only championed, or even paid mind at all, if an artist can renew their output over time – experimenting and expanding and progressing to something that they haven’t said before. But that’s not necessarily the way Bill Callahan’s career has unfolded. And that’s what makes it somewhat astounding. When I think of the brilliant songwriters working in the 21st Century, (Isaac Brock, Alela Diane, Seth Olinsky, Tom Waits, Michael Gira, José Gonzalez, Beck and Yo La Tengo come to mind) I tend to think of things like stylistic evolution. Turning points. 180’s. Surprises. Growing pains.
But instead of changing his approach in any real tangible way, Mr. Callahan has plugged along at the same steady pace, scribbling up some of the most engrossing lyrics and beautifully, deceptively simple arrangements of this day, or any other. On Dream River, we find that Callahan hasn’t really deviated from his somehow emotionally-rich, yet apathetically tuned outlook that can be found on albums dating back to the mid-‘90s. Sensitive, yet hollow. Serious in silliness. Lush, but monotone. These are the conflicting attributes I can peg onto Bill Callahan like no one else. The new work utilizes flutes, fiddles, electric guitars, Wurlitzer organs, expensive-sounding studio effects, and provides a meatier overall listen – but then there’s Bill out in front – wry observations and swift delivery, natural as ever. Being a progenitor of the lo-fi movement, he used to work with less, (less sound, that is) but his methodology seems to have remained the same.
After the endearing bar-room lament entitled “The Sing,” opens the album, “Javelin Unlanding” trots in, using a slightly processed country-strum from an acoustic guitar. This is followed by bits of electric flourishes – fully aware of their own psychedelic tremolo and echoing abilities – but never over-stating them. Following with such subtlety you hardly notice they’ve arrived – are brisk pianos, drums, and a melodious flute. This moves into the languid, droning “Small Plane”. Cleanly plucked notes shimmer and wrap around Callahan’s soft baritone like puzzle pieces. In fact, Matt Kinsey’s guitar work on this entire record is gorgeous enough to be the centerpiece, though that is never actually its role. Sometimes humming off in the distance – sometimes bellowing walls of feedback – it dances around the vocals and flute and other instrumentation, perfectly complimenting each track.
In terms of his own albums, Dream River’s DNA makeup is probably most similar to 2011’s Apocalypse, and along with the mountainous cover artwork, almost serves as its delayed companion piece. Released on Drag City on September 17th, Dream River has already become a high-water-mark of Callahan’s enthralling body of work.
Callahan is also on a massive international tour that will be stopping in Denver on November 25th – and if you caught him at The Hi-Dive during his 2011 tour, you know this is not a date to be missed.