What I Listened to When I Listened To Music This Week…

This is going to be my new roughly weekly review of what I’ve been listening to in the last week. Be that a new album, a radio show or a particularly wonderful album dug out from way down in my collection somewhere.

With plenty of time on my hands, there’s been a lot of contenders this week! Radcliffe & Maconie have been doing a wonderful job with my afternoons and the very on trend new album from The Arctic Monkeys has been high on rotation but ultimately one album has never been far from my ears all week, so brace yourselves…

Bill Callahan – Dream River

Dream River is the fourth album of Bill Callahan’s career as Bill Callahan. That’s an odd phrasing isn’t it, but Callahan’s career is a tad tricky to define. Starting life as Smog (not actually a band but an alter-ego for Callahan’s solo work) he presented 12 albums to the world and then for one reason or another he decided to stop hiding under a pseudonym and re-launched his solo career under his own name. A bold move to essentially rename yourself after 15 years in the industry (Callahan has been releasing albums since I was 5!) but one that seems to have led to some of the best work of his career.

I first stumbled across Bill in the role of both support act and boyfriend of Joanna Newsom as she played with the full might of the Northern Sinfonia at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Despite the fact he was committing the most heinous of crimes that is dating just about my favourite woman in the world his set with just  a couple of musical accomplices was a wonderful way to start an evening, and demonstrated you didn’t need the might of an orchestra to be a wonderful story teller.

Dream River is the follow up to 2011s Apocalypse and whilst there’s hints of classic Callahan there’s a noticeable change in mindset. If Apocalypse was the sounds of a man leaving his feelings behind him, Dream River is perhaps (and say it quietly) a man finding out there’s some happiness at home after all. Ok so he’s not singing “You Are My Sunshine” or banging a tambourine in joy, and the Polyphonic Spree this ain’t but as he croaks “I have learned that when things are beautiful, you just keep on” on closing track Winter Road you can’t help but feel this is about as close to an expression of happiness as he’s ever going to let the world see.

It’s no one off reference point either throughout the album there’s a contentment to Bill’s words. Standout track Small Plane finds Bill declaring himself a “lucky man” and has several references to shared responsibility and the joys of both taking the controls and trusting someone else to take them too. The intro has hints of Eels, another artist who seems to have stumbled onto a rich vein of both musical creativity and happiness.

Musically for the most part it’s a similar pallet to previous works, relying largely on minimal instrumentation to back his gruff voice, and as ever it’s his voice that’s the key. Comparisons with Leonard Cohen rarely do anyone any harm, and it’s an obvious one for Bill, he wont be winning X-Factor anytime soon and when it was recently declared in uncut his speaking voice was very similar to his singing voice it was hardly a shock. Vocal acrobatics have never done much for me though and there’s an honesty and tone to his delivery which is right up my street.

One new development for this album is the regular use of a flute almost throughout. Now generally I find the flute just about the most offensive instrument around (far too much like someone spitting at a piece of metal), but here’s it’s used to great effect. It lends a skittish, come-hither atmosphere to Spring a track that Ron Burgundy would be proud of, which pairs the jazz flute with the lyric “all I want to do is make love to you in the fertile dirt”. Whilst it’d generally be a brave person who reaches for a Bill Callahan record in the bedroom, it’s genuinely quite seductive!

Elsewhere Seagull’s references to bars & birds (the in the sky variety not the slightly derogatory comment to a woman type) is the kind of lyrical currency we’re used too from Callahan, and despite it’s shared track and field references Javelin Landing (slightly disappointingly) doesn’t come across all Belle & Sebastian. The whole album has a feeling of movement backed up with his constant references to rivers & the open road, and throughout the percussion is beautifully judged, coming across almost North African in places without ever threatening to hog the lime light.

If I had one criticism of this album it was the lack of an immediate stand-out track and certainly there’s nothing as accessible as Too Many Birds or My Friend on 2009s exceptional Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. However with repeated listens it dawned on me this album may just contain the best track he’s ever written!

Summer Painter is just a wonderful piece of story telling in the Bob Dylan/Leonard Cohen vein and worthy of comparison with either artist. A tale of a previous life as a boat painter, full of seafaring traditions and storms’a’blowing I’m almost tempted to paste the lyrics in full but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you all, it just needs to be heard!

A fantastic album, it continues on a classic Callahan blueprint but as with all great artists there’s always something new to be found in every release. He’s touring the UK in February culminating with a couple of nights at the Royal Festival Hall, so expect to hear me declaring his genius again in the not too distant future!

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