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"At their best and worst, solo acoustic guitar albums can feel like workshops, demonstrations meant to spotlight a player’s depth or breadth of knowledge and technique. A genteel folk shuffle cedes to a gnarly blues moan, or a ragtime ditty yields to an extended raga improvisation. Maybe there’s a banjo number, a fiddle tune, or a collage of field-recording abstraction, where crickets chirp or creeks trickle beneath incidental chords. This condition has seemed especially true for the large group of players that has emerged during the last decade. As though to keep stride with our genre-blending times, and to not be bound by old stylistic structures, these young instrumentalists (William Tyler, Steve Gunn, and James Blackshaw among them) have often embraced adaptability more than singularity.
Daniel Bachman has spent the bulk of the six albums he’s released during the last four years showing that, even at the age of 25, he can stretch. For 2013’s Jesus I’m a Sinner, he plucked a banjo on one track, picked meditative lines through a haze of eerie effects for the next, and then pranced and plowed alongside an old-time band. There have been little one-instrument symphonies and unadorned folk beauties, irascible strummers and blissful drifters. The variety has made for wonderful discrete moments and galvanized Bachman’s growing reputation as one of his form’s best new practitioners. But it’s also made for albums that were mostly fine—often dazzling but generally distracted, as if Bachman knew how to travel but not exactly where to go. River, Bachman’s seventh album, is the first with a clear purpose and consistent direction. To date, it’s the best work of his career.
Though Bachman is now based in Durham, N.C., where River was recorded, he is a native of the northern Virginia city of Fredericksburg, near where the Rappahannock River winds out of the Chesapeake Bay. A set of seven unaccompanied guitar instrumentals, River reads like a private love letter to an old home, written and sent from a new one. Named for another nearby town, the short "Farnham" is nostalgic but sentimentally vague, like a winsome feeling in search of the exact childhood memory that inspired it. The two-part, 17-minute suite "Song for the Setting Sun" conjures an array of emotions in one fluid listen. In part one, Bachman seems to express anxiety over the disappearing day in a place he loves but must leave; just before the three-minute mark, you can hear him nervously shuffle in his chair, perhaps even sigh. The nerves soon sublimate into contentment, though, as Bachman plays the sort of bright, gentle melody that suggests a hand-me-down folk standard, a musical home remedy meant to quell unease. At one point, Bachman’s busy, bustling strings imply he’s even throwing a backyard party. This material is like a survey of his experiences, not an overview of his abilities.
River runs so well as a unit that, unless you’re able to spot the tunes or sleuth the liner notes, you likely won’t detect that Bachman didn’t even write two of these numbers. Bachman undercuts the original sliver of menace in Jack Rose’s "Levee", turning what sounds like an ominous threat into a hopeful promise. His chords glow, and his pulse is quick, as if he’s reflecting on a hard place from a safe, removed distance. The same holds for his spry interpretation of William Moore’s patient, playful 1928 delight, "Old Country Rock". Bachman fills the spaces between Moore’s licks with brief notes and radiant overtones; he’s practically dancing with the source material. Though divided by nearly a century, Rose and Moore both lived in the riverine area Bachman extols here; Rose grew up in Fredericksburg, and Moore used to cross the Rappahannock for work. Bachman treats their tales with the same familiarity and fondness he treats the land and his own life there.
The Rappahannock is Bachman’s thematic thread, an animating and unifying concept that helps all of this material work as a set piece, not just a set of pieces. If he wants to keep his albums interesting, of course, it’s unlikely he’ll return to the same geographical feature often. But maybe that’s not necessary now. During the 14-minute opener "Won’t You Cross Over to that Other Shore", it’s clear something has shifted with Bachman’s composition and execution. There’s a little bit of raga and a little bit of ragtime, some rock'n'roll gusto and some bluegrass spirit. But all these elements feel connected and cohesive, like bits moving together with perfectly governed momentum. Even when the song swings from its darkest, slowest drags to its shiniest, fastest flourishes, the results feel more personal than professional, a demonstration of experience rather than education." (Grayson Haver Currin, Pitchfork)