Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)

I’m going to jump right into this with “The Roundabout”, the sixth song on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, and also its best. It’s the best because it strikes the right balance between Ryley Walker the singer/songwriter, and Ryley Walker the musician; a struggle of push-and-pull that’s been playing out over his discography. Walker writes good songs, but his voice doesn’t have a ton of character and sometimes his lyrics aren’t as clever or poetic as he thinks they are (lines like “Spend your mornings thinking about the night/Don’t carry fire, you can use my light” make me groan). Musicianship is another story, and Walker and his bandmates are on fire here, often recalling the cutting edge melding of folk and jazz Tim Buckley explored on Happy/Sad, Starsailor and Blue Afternoon. Sometimes those instrumental passages are so good, they make you wish Walker would turn the microphone off and just keep playing. The album’s opening duo of “The Halfwit In Me” and “A Choir Apart” have Walker struggling to place his words into the songs’ relatively fast tempos, while still conveying some kind of meaning or emotion. Golden Sings’ slower songs are a better match, giving Walker enough space to play around with cadences and put more soul into his vocals, while still having enough leftover space for instrumental displays. The problem is there’s too many of these songs, saddling the album with a sluggish tempo it never quite overcomes – although the album-ending “Age Old Tale” is phenomenal, recalling the title song from Neil Young’s On The Beach, with an intoxicating dream-like feel that make its 8+ minutes seem short. Walker has all the necessary tools to make a classic album at some point in his career, but we may need to be patient until he finds the perfect balance between his strengths and weaknesses.

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green (Dead Oceans)

A few months ago I was complaining a to friend about the lack of people under 30 making exciting folk music these days. I wondered if the art-form was outdated, made quaint by technological advances and young people not wanting to play introspective and subtle music. Soon after this discussion I discovered Ryley Walker, a guy in his mid-20s from Rockford, Illinois, whose music is firmly planted in the open-ended folk experimentation of the late-’60s and early-’70s. There’s no way to listen to Primrose Green and not be reminded of guys like John Martyn, Van Morrison (the album cover has elements of both Astral Weeks and His Band & Street Choir), and Tim Buckley. Buckley’s influence looms largest on the album, with the jazz musicians behind Walker creating a mood similar to Buckley’s Happy/Sad and Blue Afternoon. At times Walker colors so much within the lines set down by his inspirations that the album feels redundant, but he’s so damn good at it you can’t help but be captivated. Walker’s voice falls somewhere in the neighborhood of Tim Buckley and his guitar playing is top notch, but it’s the way Walker uses those tools with the musicians around him that makes Primrose Green so strong. I don’t usually get excited by jamming, but it’s a highlight here, with the band often taking off into transcendent flights of fancy that can overshadow the songs they were born out of. Take the title track for example. The vocals and lyrics – inspired by a psychedelic cocktail Walker gives the recipe for on the back cover – are solid, but it peaks when the guitar and piano players lay down expressive solos over the inspired drums and double bass. No matter how you slice it, this is powerful stuff, and Walker’s talents prove that folk music is alive and well.