Release Date: Aug 19, 2016
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Nodding to the likes of Nick Drake and Bert Jansch, the last album by jazz-folk songsmith Ryley Walker was a somewhat anglophilic affair. If you didn’t know that its title came from a trippy cocktail combining whisky with morning glory seeds, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2015’s Primrose Green was named after some kind of communal grassland where the quintessentially English subjects of Kinks songs would gather on a sunny Sunday afternoon to make daisy chains and practise their Morris dancing. Even its cover photograph could have been snapped in the English countryside; it depicted Walker surrounded by wildflowers as if pausing for a picnic on his way to Fairport’s Cropredy Convention.
Illinois singer-songwriter Ryley Walker has already carved his own niche as a guitarist and songwriter somewhat in thrall to a specific set of expansive folk influences (John Martyn, Tim Buckley, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake). He has occupied this particular area so clearly and strongly that he has largely been unable to escape interviews that focus more on his listening than his own work. His last album, Primrose Green, although excellent, probably didn’t help too much, given its wistful, nostalgic title, cover design and sound.
Ryley Walker is part of a recent wave of so-called "American Primitive" acoustic guitarists using their technical prowess to take the instrument to rare heights of psychedelia. Walker dazzled with his acoustic guitar odysseys on his last two albums, but his latest, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, takes his sound and songwriting to a new level.A big challenge to modern folk artists generally has been avoiding the clichés of pastoral imagery in their storytelling; for years, we've been inundated by songs that use mountains, rivers and natural life to convey matters of the heart. A few artists have risen to this challenge by incorporating humour (Father John Misty, Kurt Vile), and now Walker can count himself among their ranks.
Critical illustrations of Ryley Walker’s sound usually dip into the same reservoir of pastoral iconography: open meadows, open skies, barbed wire, wind, sunlight that cuts through trees and settles on the backs of new lovers. This may be influenced by the Astral Weeks-inspired, mystic-troubadour cover of his sophomore album Primrose Green, or by his resplendently mellowed-out arrangements, or by his lyrical infatuation with edenic couples walking “two by two”, summer dresses clinging to skin, and Midwestern, faux-bucolic landscapes, but it’s not too far off the mark. Thanks to Walker’s ponderous finger-picked guitar style and lithe, warm-throated vocals, his sound seems to be inextricable from a certain folk-jazz pastoralism, a sonic worldview defined by basses walking along riversides and notes drifting through tall-grass prairies.
When singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ryley Walker released 2014's All Kinds of You, his playing style openly referenced Jack Rose, the "American Primitive" Takoma sound, and British innovators such as Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. His musical structures were loose and full of improvisation. A year later, on Primrose Green, the American primitive notions slipped from the radar, but the Brit folk had been fully integrated, and his love of Tim Buckley, John Martyn, and Terry Callier were woven into more expansively textured songs.
Following the release of All Kinds of You (2014) and Primrose Green (2015), Midwestern troubadour Ryley Walker was met with near universal praise for his fingerpicking dexterity and ability to weave disparate strands of folk, jazz, and blues into a coherent whole. However, more than a few critical doubts were also raised regarding Walker's unabashed indebtedness to the likes of John Martyn, Bert Jansch, and Tim Buckley. .
Ryley Walker’s breakout record, last spring’s Primrose Green, was an inspired take on ‘60-inspired jazz folk, centered around intricate guitar riffs where the vocals were sometimes an afterthought. Influenced by John Fahey and Jack Rose while also following in a new wave with contemporaries like Steve Gunn and William Tyler, the album was a strong showing by a promising artist looking to further a traditional sound. But Walker wasn’t necessarily thrilled about Primrose Green, and is anxious to put that era behind him and move on to something new.
It’s always risky when a young artist opens an album with an unexpected gambit that either sounds remarkably better or different than the rest of the songs that follow. Going for the shock of the new is understandable, but there’s the danger that listeners could fall in love with that first moment and then become disappointed when the rest of the record fails to stack up. Such is the case with Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, the third studio album by Illinois guitar wunderkind Ryley Walker.
Ryley Walker’s third album opens with one of the best songs of the year. The Halfwit in Me manages to be urgent and mellow simultaneously, repeatedly peaking in an ecstatic acoustic guitar hook that sounds both completely fresh and as if it has been around for ever. It sets the bar high for the rest of the album, which never manages to reach that level of invention, instead turning back – as on this album’s predecessor, Primrose Green – to mood, conveyed by psych-folk guitar, jazzy drums and subdued bass.
It’s hardly unheard of for artists to say negative things about their past output. It’s less usual for them to be mean about records that are genuinely great. As such, Ryley Walker‘s recent unflattering comments about his second album are somewhat surprising.
For last year’s lovely Primrose Green, Ryley Walker assembled a cast of Chicago free-jazz fellow travelers, interspersing his spare, blues-y folk blues with shimmers of cool fusion-y keyboards, deep plunks of acoustic bass, abstract and questing drum rhythms and nocturnal meditations in electric guitar. This time around, much of his backing band is back, along with producer/arranger/player LeRoy Bach from Wilco, and the sounds are similar but more lived in. Where before the Chicago jazz overlayer was just that, an addition, now it feels integral, relaxed and permeating.
Ryley Walker, playing Pitchfork in 2015, has a new album, “Golden Sings That Have Been Sung.” Singer-guitarist Ryley Walker's music suggests one long free-flowing song. The playing sounds improvised within a loose structure, the singing is more like a waking dream, the words and notes made up in the moment. In concert, the arrangements ebb and surge.
Not long ago it was possible to peg Ryley Walker as a pastiche agent, a fingerstyle guitarist and singer-songwriter with a taste for revivalist modes of yesteryear. His breakout 2015 album, “Primrose Green,” evoked the pastoral British psychedelia of the late 1960s and early ’70s — Tim Buckley, John Martyn, Nick Drake — with a coy precision that probably went a little too far. From the title to the cover illustration, it sold a convenient fiction: the idea that Mr.