Ryley Walker’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is a logical follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2015 album Primrose Green. The earlier release was noted for its almost spookily faithful homage to 1960s English folk-rock, particularly early Van Morrison. While Golden Sings finds Walker drinking from the same well, it’s notably less derivative. (From the cover art I almost expected yacht rock. Thankfully … no.)
Fans and critics are hearing all kinds of influences in this one, including lots of post-grunge indie folk and rock. In most of these eight tracks, though, I’m hearing what still sounds like Brit folk-rock, although maybe it’s moving forward into the early ’70s. It’s more electric and perhaps more overtly jazz influenced, including plenty of Fender Rhodes. In the opening track “The Halfwit In Me” (and others) I’m also reminded of Joni Mitchell at the beginning of her jazz period. And there are still plenty of classic English folk-rock chord progressions that make you think of Pentangle and Traffic.
But really, I’d rather take Walker and his music at face value and say, “he’s making the kind of music he likes and needs to make,” and try not to bother picking out his influences. And in most if not all of these songs, Walker is matching his stream-of-consciousness lyrics with mildly psychedelic, bluesy folk rock music. The story is that most of these songs started out as a lick and some improvised words that came to him as he was touring in support of Primrose Green, the music of which he felt he had already progressed beyond. Then when he had a break in touring and a chance to record back in his adopted home of Chicago, he took these bare skeletons of songs to LeRoy Bach, a producer and multi-instrumentalist who sometimes plays with Wilco. They emerged with Golden Sings.
It’s moody and confusing, as befits a record made by a guy still in his mid-20s. “A Choir Apart” does indeed have a sound somewhat like acoustic ’90s indie rock, its impressionistic lyrics propelled by an insistent tom-tom in addition to layers of guitars.
A lot of these songs, including “Sullen Mind” and “I Will Ask You Twice” come off like songs built around overheard conversations, or perhaps conversations Walker had. In both of those, one of the speakers seems to be working out his confusion about his Christian upbringing and his current lifestyle. The disturbing “Sullen Mind” seems to be taking place in a bar with someone who has a closed mind and a chip on his shoulder, set to dark chords, lots of guitar and something chiming, a mandola maybe, with impressive guitar fingerpicking in the bridge section.
“The Roundabout” is one of the promoted singles from the album. It’s a catchy, nostalgic song about his favorite spot in the city, perhaps a literal intersection, perhaps a bar or club. It comes with an impressive video of people doing very dangerous things with fireworks on what appears to be a hot summer night, maybe the 4th of July.
My favorite is the long and languid “Funny Thing She Said,” a back-and-forth conversation between two people talking past each other. Its setting reminds me of some of the wandering blues jams played back in the day by Quicksilver or Jefferson Airplane. Except, of course, it’s really a Ryley Walker song, so you’d best just let yourself go with the groove and soak up what he has to say and the way he says it. This guy’s just getting started, and it’s sure to be an interesting trip.
(Dead Oceans, 2016)