Mojo (Publisher) - Ranked #21 in Mojo's 'The 50 Best Albums Of 2016' -- "Alongside the acoustic guitar virtuosity, Walker's songwriting has dramatically matured..."
When singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ryley Walker released 2014's All Kinds of You, his playing style openly referenced Jack Rose, the "American Primitive" Takoma sound, and British innovators such as Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. His musical structures were loose and full of improvisation. A year later, on Primrose Green, the American primitive notions slipped from the radar, but the Brit folk had been fully integrated, and his love of Tim Buckley, John Martyn, and Terry Callier were woven into more expansively textured songs. Golden Sings That Have Been Sung offers another change-up. These eight songs offer more proof of Walker's evolution as a writer, and his referential focus has shifted again. He's not showcasing his playing abilities as much here, but readily evokes the Chicago scene of the '90s that gave us Gastr del Sol, the Sea and Cake, and Tortoise. The set was produced by multi-instrumentalist/arranger Leroy Bach (Wilco, Liz Phair, Rob Mazurek). Most of the remaining cast (also Chicagoans) have worked with Walker before. Opener "The Halfwit in Me," with its deadpan title and lyrics, underscores the influence of Jim O'Rourke and Gastr del Sol. The vibe is breezy, quirky, lithe pop with tight charts offering interlocking grooves in shifting time signatures. Clarinet, electric piano, and lap steel guitar (all from Bach) wrap themselves around gentle percussion and fingerstyle acoustic guitar. "A Choir Apart" offers a shifting dynamic with its ominous tom-toms that bridge modal psychedelic chamber pop and more experimental rock terrain (à la Tortoise). "Sullen Mind" is a more full-bodied articulation of sounds Walker's explored before, and features stellar interplay between electric piano, droning acoustic guitar, and Brian Sulpizio's poignant electric lead lines. "The Roundabout" is a midtempo folk-rock tune built around a single -- and yes, circular -- guitar vamp. Walker's lyric juxtaposes pain disguised as self-deprecating humor (think Mark Eitzel) at a local watering hole: "Can I buy you a drink/Though my credit is quite shit...And you cry like you've never seen water/And come to think of it I think my dad wanted a daughter...." Closer "Age Old Tale" is the longest and loosest thing here, with jazz overtones and sweeping autoharp -- evoking Alice Coltrane's early Impulse! recordings -- and engages Anton Hatwich's rumbling bassline as strummed electric and acoustic guitars move at a cough syrup pace. It's a modal vamp that doesn't really go anywhere -- though there is a nice clarinet interlude near the end -- but it doesn't need to; its deep-nod vibe is enough. There are a couple of duds here, including the dirge "The Great and Undecided" (that pays self-indulgent homage to Mark Kozelek's journal-entry confessional songwriting). On one level, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung delivers the most advanced music Walker's released to date. That said, despite his growing confidence and excellent production and arrangements, the singing and lyric writing still need work. This is a snapshot of where he is at the moment. It's a solid effort even with its flaws. ~ Thom Jurek