From the Depths: The Artistry of Ryley Walker
by Justin Farrar | May 3, 2014
Welcome to From the Depths, a recurring feature that spotlights deep underground sounds lurking within the Rhapsody catalog.
Had Ryley Walker's excellent debut, All Kinds of You, been released a half-dozen years ago, I daresay my fellow music critics would have slapped the freak-folk tag on it. After all, not unlike the freak-folkies, the Chicago-based singer, songwriter and guitarist is influenced by vintage folk rock and progressive folk. But where artists like Joanna Newsom and Espers have opted to accentuate those movements' baroque and twee aspects, Walker is far more concerned with investigating their roots in the ecstatic and intoxicated. Or, to put it another way, freak folkies have always tended to take their cues from the refined delicacy of Nick Drake and Incredible String Band, whereas Walker is attuned to the hard-swinging, jazz-meets-blues impulses of John Martyn and Tim Buckley. It's a subtle yet ultimately vital difference in disposition.
Of the nine cuts comprising All Kinds of You, maybe the most overt testament to the above qualities is the instrumental "Twin Oaks, Pt. 1." Accompanied by viola player Whitney Johnson, drummer Ben Billington and bassist Dan Thatcher, Walker and his fleet-fingered runs lead the ensemble through a frenetic fusion of folk, ragtime and country swing. By the halfway mark, the ensemble has morphed into a locomotive spewing black smoke while slithering in and out of rolling foot hills.
Just as convincing is lead cut "The West Wind." Though it's less earthy and more shadowy than "Twin Oaks, Pt. 1," the swirling, loop-like groove Walker and company construct is just as propulsive. Incidentally, said propulsion felt even more potent when I saw Walker perform earlier this month. Sporting a more electrified lineup for his spring tour (organ instead of piano, significantly more electric guitar), he transformed "The West Wind" into a folk rock "throwdown" that to these ears sounded like Mimi & Richard Farina meet Greetings from L.A.-era Tim Buckley. It was funky, muscular and loud. The song ended in a piercing, staccato crescendo, with organist Ben Boye more or less punching his keys. Though I'm fairly familiar with Walker's history as a practitioner of experimental noise and free improv, this level of ferocity in a folk rock context took me by surprise. I have to admit, because he was the opening act for Cloud Nothings and hence playing a large room primarily for rock acts, I worried that Walker's acoustic-based sound would get swallowed up by the audience. But the complete opposite occurred: He swallowed them up.
For this installment of From the Depths, my playlist features all nine tracks from All Kinds of You interspersed with older songs that, in my opinion, help to contextualize Walker's artistry, as well as the folk rock lineage to which it belongs. Thus, in addition to aforementioned musicians Tim Buckley and John Martyn, you'll encounter the work of Fred Neil, Anne Briggs, Tim Hardin, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. I hope you enjoy.