After the urgent sound of 2011's Apocalypse, where Bill Callahan uncharacteristically turned his wry gaze outward to examine America's physical, psychological, and cultural geographies, he returns to a more familiar interior landscape on Dream River. It too was recorded in Texas, features another cover painting by artist Paul Ryan, and guitarist Matt Kinsey is again ever present. Despite the set's more laid-back overall demeanor, something serpentine is at work. Americana certainly plays its role in the mix, but only as a frame. On the opener "The Sing," the narrator is in a hotel bar minimally observing in seeming non sequiturs its patrons, textures, and sounds, all as interior experiences. There is a country fiddle in the setting, but a syncopated mariachi rhythm -- thanks to Thor Harris' claves -- dislocates the Southwestern melody, changing its shape in the refrain toward norteño, and in the bridge it moves again, ever so slightly, toward soul -- Callahan even namechecks Marvin Gaye to make sure we get it. The spacy electric guitars of "Spring" and Harris' Latin beat on the congas are answered by Chojo Jaques' improvising flute. (Think Neil Young accompanied by Ray Barretto and Jeremy Steig.) "Ride My Arrow" is in 6/8. It begins as an almost entirely acoustic ballad, but Jamie Zuverza's Wurlitzer, Harris' congas, and Kinsey's silvery electric guitar all contribute to a rising tension as they wind around one another, but the improvisation never quite explodes. "Seagull" is almost impressionistic save for its constant, laid-back rhythm. It's populated with an instrumental drift where space and indirect stylistic musical carry the skeletal melody. Callahan's vocal addresses the impermanence of place and time as natural extensions of his person and the world, placing the listener in free fall. Throughout this album everything is taken gradually and either develops or doesn't. This is summed up on the gossamer Americana of the final track "Winter Road." Callahan's simple, direct, interior reflections aren't so much self-satisfied as they are minutely absorbed in the small, fleeting, magic of these moments as they add up and pass by. They barely exist long enough for him to get them down in lyric form (though they've left a clear mark inside). Illustrating them musically already places them in another context, creating its own atmosphere of reverie in the listener. With Dream River, fans already know what to expect from the man lyrically, and it can't be argued with qualitatively. When you place those lyrics in the context of something so subtly adventurous musically, the result is both engaging and seductive.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek