Release Date: Mar 31, 2015
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Ryley Walker is not of this time. Drawing likely comparisons to Tim Buckley, John Martyn and Adrian Legg for his fingerpicked folk guitar style, Walker’s sophomore LP, Primrose Green, is less a collection of songs than it is a series of esoteric compositions culled from the ether of yore. Like recently unearthed gems from Gary Higgins and Vashti Bunyan, Primrose Green is a flashback that will not soon wither with age, no matter its immediate reception.
That Ryley Walker appears to embody the determined, shaggy-haired guitar artiste of the austere folk ‘70s is only one of his endearments. The fact that the breadth of his musicianship actually matches the persona—steeped as it is in both the minimalist traditions of Chicagoland experimental jazz and the fingerpicking wizardry of primitive guitar folk heroes like Glenn Jones—paints Walker as a real-deal revivalist of the most unironic order. This is important when listening to Walker’s sophomore album, Primrose Green.
Guitarist Ryley Walker follows All Kinds of You, his 2014 debut full-length, by delving deeper into some of the abstract jazz and psych-inflected folk-rock that permeated several of its tracks. On Primrose Green -- his debut for Dead Oceans -- he doesn't worry about putting his own signature on his tunes; this record is all about playing music he loves with people he respects. Though these are original songs, their inspirational roots lie in late-'60s and early-'70s sources.
Following the release of his first solo record, ‘All Kinds of You’, Ryley Walker set out to experiment. Personal suffering in the songwriter’s life set the Illinois guitarist on a path of expanding on the folk influences he has delved in since 2012. ‘Primrose Green’ is the next chapter. Walker’s songwriting remains expansive, evoking a whimsical element by leaving in elements of jamming and crafting.
Bert Jansch (and Pentangle), Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Tim Hardin… these are just some of the ghosts that haunt the fringes of Primrose Green, the excellent second album from Chicago guitarist and songwriter Ryley Walker. Whilst his debut showed promise, not least in his tumbling, cascasing acoustic guitar playing, Primrose Green performs an impressive double stunt in better showcasing both his songwriting and singing on one hand, and his ambition to create something looser, freer and more spontaneous on the other. To achieve the latter, Walker has employed a high level, fluent and creative band of seasoned Chicago jazz players.
The title track of Ryley Walker’s second album answers a question no one ever asked: how would it sound if Tim Buckley had written his own version of Afroman’s Because I Got High? The Primrose Green in question isn’t some village garden, but evidently some strain of weed with which Walker is spectacularly besotted – and that’s not the only thing that makes this album seem like a lost relic from 1970. The influence of Buckley is so clear that you feel like asking Walker to play Buzzin’ Fly just to get it out of his system, while the upright-bass sound is strongly reminiscent of Pentangle (given that Pentangle’s Danny Thompson played bass on Buckley’s Dream Letter live set, that’s pretty much the model here). Even when he strays from the jazz-folk path, Walker stays in period, as on the modal guitar instrumental Griffiths Buck Blues.
On first listen, it’s easy to mistake Ryley Walker’s sophomore album as the forgotten effort of a heralded ’60s British folk-jazz quartet. Opening with its earthy title track, Primrose Green whisks listeners back several decades. The Chicago songwriter wields his guitar with masterful ease. It’s more than an extension of his body — it’s an extension of his imagination.
In his quarter-century, Ryley Walker seems to have made definitive decisions about what qualifies as a worthy influence: Van Morrison records made between 1968 and 1974, Jackson C. Frank, Pentangle, and the recently reissued early works of Mike Cooper are all among the examples. On Primrose Green, he embraces those inspirations without wrestling with them.
Chicago native Ryley Walker has been perfecting his anglophile brand of fingerpicking acoustic folk since 2007, a clutch of promising early cassette releases presaging 2013’s well-received debut All Kinds Of You. Like its precursor, this sophomore release is deeply rooted in the musical traditions of the late 60s, but while it would be hard to accuse him of pushing too many boundaries, the influences are both tastefully chosen and utilised with consummate skill. Summer Dress recalls Happy/Sad-era Tim Buckley at his most breezy and jazz-inflected, the sultry The High Road echoes Nick Drake’s virtuoso guitar lines, double bass and delicate vocals, while Hide In The Roses pays tribute to Bert Jansch’s brooding spare folk.
Ryley Walker Primrose Green (Dead Oceans) Ryley Walker garnered attention around Chicago as a young experimental guitarist behind several cassette-only releases that hearkened John Fahey before Tompkins Square finally issued his formal debut last year with All Kinds of You. Whereas that LP dove into pastoral patches of British folk à la John Martyn and Bert Jansch, his sophomore effort on Dead Oceans pushes more aggressive and eclectic, with packed arrangements and heavy jazz-folk touches most closely recalling Tim Buckley's landmark experimentalism with Starsailor. Though opening modestly on the charming title track, and the jazz bass and vibraphone of "Summer Dress," Walker blurs the lines more brashly behind exceptional fingerpicking and moaning chants that weave into a wave of distortion on "Sweet Satisfaction.
There’s considerable danger in frontloading a critical assessment of an artist’s work with comparisons to innovative ancestors, but it can also be impossible to deny. Considering how few young musicians pay attention to the spirits called up by Ryley Walker on Primrose Green, it’s also not always a bad thing. The young Chicago guitarist keeps digging into the rich John Martyn/Bert Jansch/Michael Chapman loam of his first album All Kinds of You and adds dollops of American iconoclast Tim Buckley, masterfully blending the modal fingerpicking of the former with the swooping vocal beauty of the latter.
The fine yet still really quite obvious line between drawing inspiration from and just plain ripping off past masters is headline material again following the damages those responsible for Neanderthal disco smash “Blurred Lines” were recently ordered to fork out to the estate of Marvin Gaye. In a way, the debt Ryley Walker owes to his inspirations is just as blatantly obvious as the similarity between the most omnipresent mega-hit of 2013 and Gaye's '76 funk opus "Got to Give It Up". For example, describing the loose-limbed "Summer Dress" without instantly mentioning Tim Buckley, more specifically the far-out explorations of Starsailor and Lorca, is only really possible if you've never happened to come across Buckley's wilder outings.
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Ryley Walker could almost have fooled us: his sophomore record and Dead Oceans debut sounds like it wants to belong in the UK 60s or 70s psych folk scene, not like it was made by a Chicago-based guitar virtuoso and a group of jazz and improv collaborators. On songs like Summer Dress, boldness seems to be the point: Walker scats and howls about desire (lyrics hardly matter here) over prominent upright bass, swirling psychedelic guitar, heavy drums and heady vibraphone. The trance state continues in Same Minds and Love Can Be Cruel, but Walker begins to show his Nick Drake affinity on Griffiths Bucks Blues - his guitar suddenly pastoral and accompanied by strings.