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Daniel Bachman’s River

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By Eli Winter
Photo by Eric Marth

In twenty-five years, Daniel Bachman has done more than most people do in fifty: He toured the northeastern United States under the name Sacred Harp while he was still in high school. He played shows in Turkey when he was twenty-two. He played sessions for KEXP and NPR and released music with prestigious record labels like the Grammy-nominated label Tompkins Square, home to the critically acclaimed Imaginational Anthem series of instrumental acoustic guitar music, and Bathetic Records, which released Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, held by many music publications – The A.V. Club, The Village Voice and Pitchfork among them  – as one of the best albums of last year.

So it’s safe to say: Daniel Bachman has done a lot. But what’s more important than what he’s done is what he’s doing; what’s more important than who he’s been is how he’s growing. Bachman’s latest album, called River and out now on Three Lobed Recordings, shows that Bachman has matured more musically in the last year or so than every other year he’s made music. More than just a collection of songs that sound good by themselves, the individual songs on “River” work so well together that the whole of the album is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but greater than that of any other album out this year.

When talking about how he approached his new album, Bachman mentioned that he wanted his music to sound less cluttered, less “hurried and rushed,” than in years past. On his previous albums, you couldn’t picture Bachman’s fingerpicking if you could hit pause while he played, because doing so would be like trying to picture individual snowflakes floating in a blizzard. He played so fast that, even on his longer songs, it seemed like Bachman was in as much of a hurry as his fingers were. While incredibly impressive from a technical point of view, Bachman chalks this initial speed-demon style up to nervousness; now, he says that he’s gradually learned “how to play slow and with feeling.” Over the course of his musical career, it’s easy to hear Bachman refining his songwriting and playing styles with each release, writing more focused songs, playing them less quickly and more confidently. Now, for the first time, Bachman’s music is made in such a way that it finds more reward in rest rather than restlessness.

Indeed, on hearing “River,” or just reading its name, one gets the sense that Bachman is equally focused on getting to Point B as he is on the way he’ll get there – four of its seven songs take more than five minutes to fully unravel themselves; two, forming a two-part suite, are each about eight-and-a-half minutes long, and one song, also reprised at the end of the album, is almost fifteen minutes long. This might read like a recipe for self-indulgence, or “Daniel Bachman Plays Rush,” but simply calling these songs and their album well-crafted does Bachman a disservice.

These songs hold your attention like first-time drivers hold a steering wheel; they’re gripping, and they never let go, even when Bachman draws out a long pause from one section of a song to the next. The most obvious example of this is on the aforementioned album opener “Won’t You Cross Over To That Other Shore (For Richard),” which lasts nearly a quarter of an hour in length. The song, in part inspired by the passing of Bachman’s friend Richard Cizik, Jr., to whom the album is also dedicated, begins with intense arpeggios suggesting a jadedness or anger at his death. While only so much speculation can be made about how large a role this played in Bachman’s songwriting, the song invokes a wide variety of emotions in the listener, beginning with the above jadedness — aided by the booming bass notes Bachman plays throughout — and moving through stages of ambivalence, frustration, weariness, despair, resignation, triumph, and, finally, relief.

The album’s shorter songs are no less effective, although they generally serve as ways for Bachman to pay tribute to some of his musical inspirations or introduce his longer songs: The second song on the album, “Levee,” was written by the late Jack Rose; the sixth, “Old Country Rock,” was written by the late William Moore, and the fourth, “Farnham,” is at times similar to a section of the song following it, “Song for the Setting Sun I.” These shorter songs are all the more powerful because they show the listener how deep Bachman’s roots to these inspirations, whether person or place, lie: He helped to design the album art for Rose’s posthumously released album, Luck in the Valley, and both Rose and Bachman lived in the same area that Moore did eighty-some-odd years ago, near the Rappahannock River. Meanwhile, “Farnham” takes its name from a city near Fredericksburg, off of Virginia’s coast.

But the longer songs on River are where Bachman’s songwriting skills flower into full bloom: Both “Song for the Setting Sun I” and “Song for the Setting Sun II” call to mind images of rivers flowing, be they the Rappahannock or the Rio Grande, and have not only fitting names, but some of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous passages recorded this decade.

The fact that River is Bachman’s first album recorded in a proper studio makes hearing it even sweeter; where previous releases were tinny, often recorded at home or places near it, River is rich, resonant, and proves itself to be one of the most rewarding albums you’ll hear this year. And when it comes to its grace, to the thousand little Easter eggs rippling through the album, waiting to be discovered, no other album out this year is as sweet: River is – literally – a resounding success for Daniel Bachman and the acoustic and slide guitar. Whatever comes next will surely be the same.