Album Review: Bill Callahan – “Dream River”

Bill Callahan - "Dream River"
Bill Callahan – “Dream River”

The first time that I heard Bill Callahan’s music was in 2011, not too long after the release of “Apocalypse,” the album that (to me) featured the song “America!” That initial listening experience was something that I won’t soon forget. There was something about Callahan’s voice that was shocking to me at first. It seems strange to even say that because he has one of those unassuming voices, nothing overtly shocking about it, nothing over the top etc. Maybe that was just it for me. Maybe I wasn’t used to hearing such a bare, unencumbered voice.

And that quality of his voice is what the music is all about. There is a solid confidence and honesty present in all of Bill Callahan’s songs. His rich baritone sits somewhere between singing and speaking at points. It’s placed way up front in the mix, I don’t want to say invading your space, but it’s definitely placed perfectly to grab your attention. When you listen to Bill Callahan, he is speaking directly to you. There isn’t any echo placed on his voice, it’s stripped bare. That was what shocked me the first time I heard him. He is not hiding behind anything. If he were to sing a wrong note (he doesn’t) it would be right out there in the open, there is no room for mistakes in his recording style. There’s confidence without bravado. It’s modesty more than anything.

The songs themselves have that honest characteristic to them as well. In “Small Planes” he repeats “I really am a lucky man” in between short verses where his voice is heard to trail off at the ends of phrases, giving the impression that he is lost in thought, or maybe even thinking out loud. This is a common quality of his music; his songs are able to portray a sense of thought and thoughtful consideration.

Understated guitar, minimal percussion and most importantly his voice, that is what the sound is all about. Callahan’s music follows his words, and his voice is the anchor of his entire sound.

Though, it’s not always 100% understated on “Dream River.” The track “Summer Painter” builds to a somewhat loud and chaotic middle section, which is surprising coming from a song that begins with guitar and long, low flute tones. “Rich man’s folly and poor man’s dreams, I’ve painted these” he sings, later finishing the thought with “the rich or the poor, who am I working for?” There are so many moments of quiet contemplation and soul searching on this album. More so than the songs on “Apocalypse” that seem to come more from an observers perspective, from a man surveying his homeland and doing such in a way that only a folk storyteller can. Where “Apocalypse” looks out across the vast country, “Dream River” turn decidedly inward.

On “Winter Road” Callahan sings of persistence and learning to “just keep on.” When the music grows and starts to sway with his voice it’s quite a moving experience, but soon the guitar takes a bit of a turn, throwing everything into a bit of a different direction with a simple descending minor 6th. The perfect depiction of the song’s meaning. This, more than anything else on the album (though they all do to a degree) recalls the sound of Jason Molina’s Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. album. The somber yet hopeful vocal, the violin that provides periodic commentary before turning into faithful accompaniment, it creates a very similar atmosphere. Though the songs on “Dream River” come more from a place of introspection and honesty followed by hope.

The album is out now on Drag City. Check out the tracks “Small Plane”and album closer “Winter Road” below and follow the links to purchase “Dream River.”

Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”
08 Winter Road