Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Daniel Bachman‘s always had a knack for simple, evocative album titles, tied to the sacred (Jesus I’m A Sinner, Oh Be Joyful), to home (Seven Pines, Orange County Serenade) and sometimes to both (last year’s River and Apparitions At The Kenmore Plantation, which he recorded under his first, short-lived moniker, Sacred Harp). At 26, Bachman is already an established and thoughtful voice in the solo guitar music scene, but he knows that evolution comes in steps, not leaps. Several albums in, Bachman has gone the self-titled route; it feels less like a chest-beating announcement and more like a wordless confirmation of where he’s at as a musician — and perhaps even as a person.
Daniel Bachman begins from mud with “Brightleaf Blues (I).” After two minutes of a squealing, acoustic drone, a bleary-eyed blues enters, slow and methodical as a tenacious tetrapod emerging from water to walk on land. There is space to his fingerpicking and chaw-smacked slides not quite heard in Bachman’s playing or composition before — it unfolds and refolds at once, like a singular flower existing in two dimensions. The same can be said of the appropriately named “The Flower Tree,” a gentle tune that bursts from its bulging buds so suddenly that you can hear the strings blister, recorded with close-up clarity by Brian Haran in Durham, N.C.
There’s a pair of food songs — the first of their kind in Bachman’s catalog — that feature the guitarist in a playful mode. Like its title, “Wine And Peanuts” is classy and trashy, a little ditty that keeps a shrewd grace under fingerpick-stabbed pressure. “Watermelon Slices On A Blue Bordered Plate” is a classic slide-guitar blues, sweaty from high noon and quenched by a wave of steel glissandi.
The 14-minute “Brightleaf Blues (II)” picks up where the first left off, sawing its way into existence with a shruti box and octotone (an instrument invented and played here by Forrest Marquisee). The earsplitting drone recalls Jack Rose‘s then-surprising sidelong piece “Sundogs,” but there is a tenderness in how Bachman quests for melody like it’s an ache he already knows. He circles the fretboard with certainty, digging in his heels until the drone overtakes the hammer-ons and pull-offs as they become sparser, piercing like a floodlight out of darkness.
Bachman closes the album with an old hymn that’s been covered by The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers and was featured on 1987’s Trio, the collaboration by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. “Farther Along,” a song about the prosperity of the wicked (a theme ever-so-present and persistent) is often rendered in bold arrangements to reflect the strength of the righteous. Its refrain — “Farther along we’ll know more about it / Farther along we’ll understand why / Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine / We’ll understand it all by and by” — is about the closest thing to hope this hymn can muster. But Bachman responds with knowing indifference, drawing out the bleakness of the melody in languid slide guitar, but not laboring over the inevitability of suffering.
Daniel Bachman has averaged one album a year since 2012, an impressive testament to his hard work. He’s always writing, always practicing, always touring, always relocating to various parts of the East Coast (currently, south of Richmond) for inspiration. But more importantly, he’s always growing. With Daniel Bachman, he presents the most rounded version of his guitar music, and there’s comfort in knowing that the next album will likely continue that thread.