Ryley Walker is a 25 year-old from the Chicago suburbs by his birth certificate and a time-traveling folk-rock spirit by his career. One look at the cover of his sophomore album, Primrose Green, is enough to make anyone think they’ve stumbled across a lost classic from the late 1960s, what with the ethereal photography and Walker himself in long hair and vivid-colored blazer. The music within reinforces such an impression, as it draws so heavily on the styles of some of the era’s most acclaimed records. Walker is definitely not in that league yet, but Primrose Green suggests a fruitful career is in store.
A Confidence of Sound
Primrose Green is Walker’s first album for the indie label Dead Oceans (home of Akron/Family and others), and it fits the label’s experimental folk aesthetic perfectly. Throughout the album’s ten tracks, running a sprightly forty-four minutes, there are echoes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, John Fahey, and above all Van Morrison from the time of Astral Weeks.
Walker’s band, comprised almost entirely of local musicians, blends acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, with the light, rollicking sounds of pianist Ben Boye and Jason Adasiewicz on vibes, creating an intricate interplay that can, and often does, catch improvisational fire. Their songs are all original Walker compositions that draw on old English and Celtic styles mixed with a dose of Blue Note. It’s almost too genre-bending for its own good, but the best adjective to describe the finished product is “confident.” Walker believes in his performance and his choices so fully that the belief cannot help but affect the record’s mood and overall level of performance. The best example is the short instrumental “Griffiths Bucks Blues.” Accompanied by Fed Lonberg-Holm on cello, Walker cuts loose with elaborate but tuneful acoustic guitar runs that Fahey or Bert Jansch would have been proud to call their own. One listen convinces that Walker is the real thing.
“Griffiths Bucks Blues” is hardly the only memorable moment. The title track is a hypnotic round with a melody pulled from a medieval church service, while “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” sounds like it was plucked from a nineteenth-century country hymnal and boasts Walker’s voice at its most entrancing. “Sweet Satisfaction,” the album’s longest cut, builds itself around a terrific rhythm and a slow crescendo of buzzing electric guitar, not as much menacing as suggestive, especially when Walker intones such lines as “I can be your lover, I can be your satisfaction, I can be your holding hands, walking two by two” over this rise. Finally, songs such as “Summer Dress” and “All Kinds of You” create a sensation that the listener has stumbled in mid-song and the band will go on playing into eternity.
These strengths are accentuated by the care taken in the production. Primrose Green sounds beautiful, every instrument heard with clarity and their interplay perfectly balanced.
Not Quite Van Yet
For all of this praise, Ryley Walker hasn’t joined the ranks of his inspirations yet. Primrose Green suffers because the effort made in creating Walker’s signature sound doesn’t extend to what that sound is based on, the music and lyrics. To return to Astral Weeks, that album has a similarly complex style, but the melodies and lyrics of the title track, “Cyprus Avenue,” and “Madame George” in particular are forever etched in my mind. After listening to Primrose Green, I would have been hard-pressed to hum any of the music Walker composed; while the album’s sound received immediate recall, it came as a jumble of jams and ideas that memory could not resolve into form. Even worse, those lyrics quoted from “Sweet Satisfaction” are an exception, not the rule. Walker’s voice is deep and inviting, but it is lost in the overall mix. There are many times it is hard to tell what he is singing, and some of the necessary emotional resonance is lost. An album never needs to be loaded with radio-ready hooks to be great, but it needs to have music and lyrics that stick in the mind and can be heard in the soul. Walker’s failure to fully accomplish this brings Primrose Green’s standing down.
However, Walker is also 25 and with only two albums to his credit. There is time enough in the future for him to hone his songwriting talent, or perhaps, considering the album’s high points involve the moments of his band uniting in tight arrangements and reacting to each other, even pursue a purely instrumental direction. Whatever he chooses, the promise and energy of Primrose Green leave me theorizing that in five years, there will be another review on this site heralding an unqualified work of excellence from Ryley Walker.