Bill Callahan - Dream River (4 stars)

Former Smog artist evokes unique isolation with dulcet voice

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Bill Callahan - Dream River

(Drag City)

While the pool of lyrical references has deepened since the dust-bowl philosophy of his ‘I Break Horses’ Smog days, it often feels like Bill Callahan is so satisfied with the sound of his own dulcet voice, he could sing a shopping list and make it resonate with arch, tremulous insight. This theory is put to the test on ‘The Sing’ – the first track on Dream River. Callahan recites an itinerary of mundane situations in that familiar lugubrious burr: ‘Drinking while sleeping strangers unknowingly keep me company / In the hotel bar’. But, as the events gather, it becomes clear that the singer is casting a wry eye at the monotonous indignity of life as a travelling musician, culminating in ‘The only words I’ve said today are “beer” and “thank you”’. Callahan evokes the unique isolation felt while constantly being in company over trademark two-chord guitar patterns and Thor Harris’ lounge-infused brushed drums.

The lounge influence pervades ‘Javelin Unlanding’, as galloping hand drums and flute encircle tremolo-heavy guitar and Callahan cooing, ‘You looked like worldwide Armageddon / While you slept’. With ‘Small Plane’, he fantasises about co-piloting a miniature aviation vessel with an unnamed love while delighting in barely perceptible degrees of intimacy as the world grows smaller in the wing mirror. Callahan is the heir to Willie Nelson in his ability to deadpan a phrase, then wobble it in an unexpected direction to maximise its visual impact. He does so with great bathetic effect on ‘Summer Painter’, as he sings ‘Like a sorcerer’s cape / The rain ripped the lips off the mouth of the bay’ against a hailstorm of juddering guitars. Just as Nelson’s innovative vocal delivery might owe something to his lifelong love affair with sensimilla, it makes some sense that Callahan has issued an ‘expanded dub’ remix of ‘Javelin Unlanding’ – the oak-strength sensuality of his phrasing offering ripe opportunity for manipulation while hand drums and Beth Galiger’s flute stretch and stutter into pleasing new shapes.

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