A few months after the release of last year's Orange Co. Serenade, the guitarist Daniel Bachman told South Carolina alt-weekly Free Times he wished he could erase some of his earliest recordings. He was playing too fast because he'd lacked the confidence to play slowly and emotionally enough to "pull some guts" out of his instrument, as his late mentor Jack Rose had. Bachman's first few records depended upon cyclonic playing, as if he had an abundance of ideas to emancipate from his head at that moment.
River, Bachman's sixth solo LP in less than four years, is his slowest—not necessarily in terms of tempo but in how Bachman approaches his instrument. His playing is more deliberate than it's ever been, his melodies more sophisticated. Rustic slide excursions and fingerpicked fantasias have the weight of stirring hymns. The robust 14-minute opener "Won't You Cross Over to That Other Shore" is riverine, its picking patterns detouring into little eddies. A tune of steady escalation, it navigates a range of moods, invoking crossing the Styx as much as it does floating along Bachman's beloved Rappahannock.
These seven songs also offer the first evidence of Bachman in a proper recording studio. All of his notes, even those accidentally muted or excitedly overstruck, are crisp and clear. The higher fidelity magnifies his compositional improvements and amplifies the record's emotional heft. The feelings Bachman conjures on River can't be defined by "happy" or "sad"; they're far more complex, as with the guttural sense of weariness imparted by subtle reverb on "Levee" or the ineffable awe summoned by the rich bloom of the two-part "Song for the Setting Sun."
What's heard on River is years spent honing a craft through breakneck touring, restless inquisition, listening to and playing with great guitarists. On River, Daniel Bachman takes the time to pull some guts out of his instrument—and to let us hear how they sound.