I first came across Ryley Walker as the driving force behind the Tompkins Square label re-issue of the late John Hulbert’s fingerstyle guitar album Opus III. Later, I saw references to Walker’s album Primrose Green but for some reason didn’t follow them up, even after having been on the same radio playlist on a couple of occasions. More fool me…my excuse, life seems to have a nasty habit of getting in the way of music. And so to Mr. Walker’s latest album Golden Sings That Have been Sung.
Ryley Walker is a considerable fingerstyle player, but on Golden Sings That Have been Sung there is no sense of a vehicle for a virtuoso. This is truly an ensemble piece. The core line-up is essentially that of Primrose Green with the notable addition of Leroy Bach whose credits cover acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keys, piano, clarinet, percussion, lap steel and, on the technical side, production, arranging and additional engineering. It is Bach’s clarinet which opens the album duetting with Walker’s gentle fingerstyle on The Halfwit in Me. This track sets out the album’s store with the subtle complexity of its arrangement. Opened by the duet mentioned above, then driven by an upbeat fingerstyle riff from Walker’s guitar the track builds as instruments are brought into the mix. The instrumental feel is consistently upbeat, optimistic yet Walker’s vocal seems world-weary. The overall effect is slightly disconcerting and by the end of that first track, you know you’re in for a fascinating ride.
The next track, A Choir Apart, is perhaps the most characteristic of the beautiful arranging work by Walker and Leroy Bach which has gone into Golden Sings That Have been Sung. Opening with what I think are floor toms (I’m no drummer) and bass and a feel reminiscent to me of songs like Peggy Lee’s Fever and Black Coffee it moves to a vocal which retains the world-weary tone but which is somehow lighter, making me think of singers like Chet Baker. Underneath this understated vocal Brian Sulpizio’s electric guitar lays down soft jazz infused lines. If you think you know where you are, you’re wrong as each verse is punctuated abruptly by heavier guitar and drums, continuing the unsettling feel suggested above. It is from a line in the lyrics of this track where the album get its odd title.
The middle of the album changes again, four tracks which all seem to fall broadly into the singer/songwriter category…at least initially. Apologies for the detestable musical pigeon hole, but sometimes they’re useful. The first of these tracks, Funny Thing She Said, is very John Martyn in character, the next Sullen Mind made me think of Richard Thompson, the third I will ask You Twice is the nearest thing on the album to solo Ryley Walker and the fourth The Roundabout starts with fingerstyle and end up as full band version of a song which the wonderful Tim Hardin never wrote. It is a fine thing to have absorbed so much music and to be able to use it while still retaining your musical identity.
The closing two tracks move from gentle rock in The Great and Undecided to the sparse jazz feel of the early tracks in the closing Age Old Tale. The eight minute plus latter has an interesting introduction comprising percussion, cello and guitar harmonics used in a way which suggests to me an atonal gamelan. Back to being unsettled…no complaint from me on that score. I suspect that this track is the tour’s closer, capable as it is of being extended for as long as the crowd can last.
I started listening to this album knowing not that much about Ryley Walker and ended up a fan. In short, he seems to have taken what Pentangle were doing, added his own voice and a shed load of influences and given it back to us writ large for the 21st Century. My only complaint…in the three months Golden Sings That Have been Sung promotional tour there is no Sligo date!
Golden Sings That Have been Sung is out now via Dead Oceans
European Tour Dates
7th NL Amsterdam, Paradiso Noord ***
8th NL Groningen, Vera ***
9th FR Paris, Espace B
10th BE Brussels, AB Club ***
11th BE Bruge, Cactus ***
12th NL Utrecht, Le Guess Who? festival
13th UK Brighton, The Haunt ***
14th UK Manchester, Ruby Lounge ***
15th UK Glasgow, Broadcast ***
16th UK Birmingham, Hare & Hounds ***
17th UK London, Islington Assembly Hall ***
19th ES Vic (Barcelona), Teatre Atlantida
20th ES Barcelona, Sidecar
21st ES Valencia, Loco Club
22nd ES Cadiz, Aulario de la Bomba
23rd ES Madrid, Siroco
24th ES Vigo, La Igunana
25th ES San Sebastian, Kulta Kultur Klub
26th FR Lyon, Le Sonic
28th IT Milan, Santaria Social Club
29th CH Lausanne, Le Bourg ***
30th DE Schorndorf, Manufaktur ***
1st DE Erlangen, E-Werk ***
2nd DE Berlin, Kantine am Berghain ***
4th NO Oslo, John Dee ***
5th SE Stockholm, Bryggarsalen ***
6th DK Copenhagen, Pumpehuset ***
7th DE Hamburg, Nochtspeicher ***
8th DE Cologne, Studio 672
15th IS Tel Aviv, Barby
*** with Itasca
Photo Credit: Tom Sheehan