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Ryley Walker

Depending on his mood and chosen style of brooding folk interpretation, 60s-styled singer-songwriter/guitarist RYLEY WALKER is the true embodiment of the jazzy TIM BUCKLEY or the traditionalist BERT JANSCH – with a little JOHN MARTYN thrown in for good measure. Ignore the man’s magpie meanderings and funky finger-pickings at your peril, the talented Mr. RYLEY WALKER raises up the roots of his deceased heroes and re-plants them one by one as if on a mission from Heaven.
Born July 21, 1989 on the banks of the ol’ Rock River in Illinois, Ryley upped sticks to sweet home Chicago in 2007, performing on his Jasmine-brand electric guitar by night, while registering more mundane projects at college. Learning his songcraft while playing finger-bleeding basement venues as both Heatdeath and Wyoming (their cassettes are like hen’s teeth to find), by the age of 21 he’d moved on as an instrumentalist in the JOHN FAHEY or SANDY BULL folk tradition.
2011 saw the release of two limited-edition cassettes: `Of Deathly Premonitions’ (with Daniel Bachman) and a second EP for Plustapes, `The Evidence Of Things Unseen’. A bike accident the following year left him with time on his hands, and a guitar (like his fingertips) in need of servicing. Lacquering his most vital assets at cheap backstreet salons, WALKER found he’d a solid and soothing baritone voice as well as finesse and prowess on his Guild D-35 guitar. Catching up on anglophile folk stars from bygone days (corralling NICK DRAKE and the aforementioned BUCKLEY, JANSCH, GRAHAM, HARDIN et al), Ryley was ready for his musical re-birth, which resulted in two 45s, `Clear The Sky’ and `The West Wind’ single. Both highlights on his 2014 debut set for Tompkins Square Records, ALL KINDS OF YOU {*8}, the latter song reached back to the turn of the 70s when music was cool and cunningly complex. Not completely abandoning his virtuoso finger-pickings by way of the Appalachian-biased `Twin Oaks’ (in 2 parts) and `Fonda’, folk fans could be forgiven if they’d searched for producer Joe Boyd on the inner sleeve credits – indeed it was CAVE’s Cooper Crain at the mixing desk; note: Ryley’s backing band were Brian J. Sulpizio (electric guitar), Dan Thatcher (bass), Ben Billington (drums), Ben Boye (piano) and Whitney Johnson (viola). A cocktail of Celtic folk, Gypsy jazz, Baroque blues and a smidgen of anything-goes ragtime and swing, the elegant WALKER drove out his demons on the masterful `Great River Road’, `On The Rise’ and `Tanglewood Spaces’.
Looking to be as prolific as his haunting music masters, the folk-rocker’s sophomore set – his first for Dead Oceans Records – PRIMROSE GREEN (2015) {*9} was all of the above – and then some; the ghost of BUCKLEY almost procuring his soul lock stock and barrel but for the echoes of MARTYN (on `Sweet Satisfaction’), JANSCH (for `The High Road’) and the upright bass touches of living legend DANNY THOMPSON (take a bow Anton Hatwich); a mention to Sulpizio, Boye and Johnson (again), plus drummer Frank Sosaly and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. While the “Happy/Sad” RYLEY WALKER will have his deep-rooted doubters, many will cherish mostly everything plucked from this evergreen Garden of Eden, including the title track, the boundary-breaking `Summer Dress’ and the dream-inducing `Love Can Be Cruel’. A star is born.
On the back of a couple of low-key collaborations with Bill MacKay and Chicago jazz drummer/percussionist Charles Rumback (LAND OF PLENTY (2015) {*6}) and the vinyl-only CANNOTS (2016) {*6} respectively), RYLEY WALKER’s promise finally reaped dividends on the glorious GOLDEN SINGS THAT HAVE BEEN SUNG (2016) {*9}. Although still not embraced in his home grasslands, a less-discerning Britain furnished him with his – hopefully – first in a trail of Top 30 albums. If one can imagine the spirit of BUCKLEY or DRAKE backed by Chicago sonic sculptors TORTOISE (at least on opening pastoral-folkies `The Halfwit In Me’ and `A Choir Apart’), an absorbingly solemn jazz-folk Ryley espoused something in the lines of a waxing lyrical Jack Kerouac, whilst transgressing his listeners into a heavenly myriad of psychedelic “psounds”. Not a weak song among the eight to grace its grooves, staying power for the lengthier slices of lo-fi soul (`Age Old Tale’, `Funny Thing She Said’ and `Sullen Mind’), would create days in the countryside of one’s mind; his “wedding song” `I Will Ask You Twice’ enriched by the “Bryter Layer”-blues of `The Roundabout’ and `The Great And Undecided’.
The nature of WALKER’s tranquil and horizontal jazz-folk couldn’t quite sustain the power of his pop/rock peers from a bygone age, when his 2018 follow-up, DEAFMAN GLANCE {*7}, for the most part, fell on deaf ears. Despite the co-producing efforts of Leroy Bach (his guitarist/arranger), Ryley’s tendency to trek to off-grid territories was probably the reason for the set’s commercial canning. If post-rockers TORTOISE had within them a singer, it’d be the KEVIN AYERS-ish Ryley; and by that fact alone, one can hear these connective classifications by way of cool cuts, `In Castle Dome’, `22 Days’, `Telluride Speed’ and `Expired’.
Who knew Ryley was a devotee of the DAVE MATTHEWS BAND? Well, this was not so much hitherto apparent late 2018, but uber-prominent and fully-realised on the interpretive track-for-track of the shelved, THE LILLYWHITE SESSIONS {*7}; a record from the vaults that DMB failed to commercially release way back in 2000 via producer Steve Lillywhite. Here, WALKER transformed tracks like `Busted Stuff’, `Diggin’ A Ditch’, `Grey Street’, `Sweet Up And Down’, `Grace Is Gone’, `Captain’ et al as if he’d penned them himself; maybe with the aid of an un-shelled TORTOISE combo exploring the possibilities of a “Pink Moon” sequel.
Fitting time around another mood-enhancing, instrumental Charles Rumback collaboration (for Thrill Jockey Records), LITTLE COMMON TWIST (2019) {*8}, folk-fusion finger-picker RYLEY WALKER excelled on most levels. The album represented a period – sessions taking place a few years back in Chicago – running up to RW’s “Lillywhite” stint. If one could re-imagine BERT JANSCH saddling up with TORTOISE (a la `Idiot Parade’), or indeed a meeting of ROBBIE BASHO jamming with POPOL VUH (a la `Self Blind Sun’); dream scenarios both, then this album would stir one’s loins. Add to that, the delicate interplay of `Ill-Fitting / No Sickness’ and the calm-before-the-storm cosmic gloom of `And You, These Sang’, and one almost shouts unwittingly for an encore – and that comes with crescendo closer, `Worn And Held’… more!
© MC Strong/MCS Apr2015-Jan2020

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