A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Label: Drag City
Release Date: 9.17.13
RIYL: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Smog, Calexico, Barry Brussea, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Cat Power
Dream River sounds like one of Leonard Cohen‘s beautiful losers brought to life and starting a solo career. Callahan takes us on a journey through Calexico‘s Southwest, stopping off for stream-of-consciousness well drink at a country + western bar, then taking off in into the sunset in a Cessna.
Bill Callahan is a force of nature. He’s been releasing music since 1990, first as Smog and recently under his given name. Obtuse lyrics, heavy on naturalist imagery, hang on a barbed-wire fence of barely guitar. Callahan wanders Woody Guthrie‘s dusty roads with a Haiku heart. Bill Callahan is a minimalist, “I like to pare away words, as I don’t want to waste anyone’s time,” he told Pitchfork.
Like the best minimalism, once you strip music down to bare essentials, you can build whatever you like on top of it. Like the progresson of Iron And Wine from 4-track troubadour to full bore African choir psychedelia on this year’s Ghost On Ghost, Dream River supplements Callahan’s skeletal guitar with an elegant country/soul band. Pedal steel guitar, banjo, percussion and jazz flute dance around Callahan’s soulful crooning. It’s surprisingly seductive, even sexy, following in the footsteps of gravel-throated gentlemen like The Tindersticks‘ Stuart Staples, David Sylvain, or Scott Walker.
The warmth and intimacy is a far cry from the nearly autistic, animated treestump described in Lisa Crystal Carver‘s Drugs Are Nice: A Post-Punk Memoir. Callahan seems approachable, likable even, in his dreamy observations. Perhaps this is part of the reason why his music has been catching on. He gathers more accolades with each successive release, snatching up headlining spots at summer music festivals. Dream River was even named Best New Music from Pitchfork. People are paying attention.
Despite the newfound recognition, Callahan’s music has been a logical progression. Like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, there’s been a journey towards classicism, towards mastery, making records that stand up next to the classics. This is still done with an indie sensibility, however. Swathes of effected electric guitar and country fiddle sound faraway, as if they’ve been laid to tape; distant, lovely and romantic. This is the sound of LISTENING TO classic records, twice removed, rather than the thing itself, which would reek of artifice, like some ill-conceived rockabilly resurgence.
In my awkward early songwriting days, a cutthroat friend told me, “Strumming is dead. Listen to Smog.” Bill Callahan slows the world down to a glacial crawl, and then fills the spaces.
You’d be advised to slow yr world down and take in this sparse, elegant record. It will help you to appreciate the splashes of sunlight on the ceiling, the shadows of leaves on the sidewalk. Start here, then dive into his extensive back catalog, then spin off to check out some of the rest of Drag City‘s roster. It’s essential indie rock.
Recommended Tracks: Small Place, Ride My Arrow, Summer Painter
Grab A Copy: Dream River