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Ryley Walker: Primrose Green
by George Graham
(Asthmatic Kitty Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/25/2015)
The English folk scene of the 1960s never achieved a lot of popularity, especially on this side of the Atlantic, but its influence continues to cast a surprisingly long shadow. Back in its period of ascendency it attracted a kind of cult following for the three main groups that arose from the scene and their various offshoots and solo projects, The Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. Others would follow, including John Martyn, Ralph McTell, The Incredible String Band, and the figure who would come to epitomize the scene’s outsize influence, the late Nick Drake. Every so often a group or artist will appear who will draw inspiration from the English folk scene. One of the more outstanding is a group from Scotland called Snowgoose, who absorbed the sound of The Pentangle on their debut album in 2012 with excellent results.
This week we have an interesting recording by a young guitarist and vocalist from the Chicago area who seems to channel the spirit and some of the sound of the late John Martyn. Ryley Walker is his name and his new full-length release, is called Primrose Green.
Ryley’s Walker’s path into this style of music is a rather unlikely one. In 2007 the rural Illinois native moved to Chicago to attend college, though briefly, and began to perform with rock bands, including one called Heatdeath. He gradually moved toward concentrating on finger-style acoustic guitar, while, according to his publicity bio, opening for various synthesizer based bands. After a bike accident in 2012, he used his recuperation time to concentrate on practicing his guitar and hit upon the idea of using acrylic salon-type glue-on fingernails to give him a distinctive tone different from playing with just his fingers, as the classical guitarists do, or the fingerpicks that the folkies use. Along the way, he was obviously listening to a lot of the Pentangle and their guitarist and occasional vocalist Bert Jansch, along with Nick Drake and especially John Martyn. In 2013, Walker released an EP and an album.
Now he is out with Primrose Green which takes a rather different direction from its more electric predecessors. He assembled a mostly acoustic band including musicians with a jazz background, further recalling the jazzy sound of The Pentangle and John Martyn.
Walker’s album represents an interesting set of influences. There are few performers these days in their 20s who look to John Martyn for inspiration. One can also hear some of the vocal influence of the late Tim Buckley. Walker’s group on the album includes Brian Sulpizio on other guitar, usually electric, Ben Boye on keyboards, Adam Hatwich on acoustic bass and Frank Rosaly on drums. Others appearing on the CD are Whitney Johnson on viola, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, and Jason Adasiewicz on vibes, adding a further hint of jazz influence. Together they get into what can sound like psychedelic-era jams. In fact, on this album ostensibly by a singer-songwriter, much of the music has longer stretches of instrumental improvising.
Also according to his bio, Walker did not have much time to write compositions before the recording sessions for the album, so a lot of the material was improvised and worked out with lyrics from scraps of paper and phrases that he had been jotting down. Consequently this is not an album in which the lyrics are the focus. Walker can be at times nearly incomprehensible as the late John Martyn could be. Both the music and the sound have a kind of atmospheric but cloudy quality, but the playing is generally quite good.
Opening is the title piece Primrose Green which sums up the distinctive sound of this album, starting right off with the kind of breezy English folk influence that conjures John Martyn or the Pentangle. <<>>
Summer Dress combines the Pentangle’s penchant for a jazzy waltz rhythm with a vocal approach influenced by the late Tim Buckley, including the lyrics which are basically fragmentary phrases. <<>>
The album contains one instrumental that would seem only natural on an album like this where the vocals and lyrics are not the center of attention. Griffths Bucks Blues features the added cello and has almost a kind of Celtic texture. <<>>
Love Can Be Cruel does have a few lyrics it but it’s mainly another vehicle for a jam among the band members. <<>>
One song that has more focused lyrics about something definite is On the Banks of the Kishwaukee about a river near where Walker group up where he saw people being baptized. It has more of an American roots sound with folk and blues influences. <<>>
On the song Sweet Satisfaction, the John Martyn and Tim Buckley influences again come to the fore. <<>>
Ryley Walker does get around to giving a nod to the late Nick Drake on the song The High Road with its cello and viola and the sparse quality of the music. It’s one of the album’s highlights. <<>>
Along the same lines is All Kinds of You with its unexpected distorted electric piano which adds a kind of psychedelic quality. It’s got a great rhythmic groove and it’s an opportunity for another jam by the Walker and friends. <<>>
Ryley Walker’s new second full album Primrose Green is interesting retro project. He nicely draws on the influence of the English folk scene of the 1960s and early 1970s, with artists like the Pentangle and the late singer-songwriter John Martyn. That’s a rarity among musicians of his age. He was about 25 at the making of this recording. And he brings a jam band quality to those musical textures, as John Martyn would sometimes do. Walker is a worthy guitarist who is joined by first-rate mostly jazz-influenced players. The vocals and lyrics are not really the focus of the record, but they fit into the musical mood well, with his vocal influence by Martyn and Tim Buckley bringing another interesting aspect.
However, our grade for audio quality is about “C.” Although the music often has an atmospheric mood, in sound quality, the CD is a decidedly murky. The lyrics are often unintelligible, the acoustic instrumentation definitely lacks clarity, and there’s far too much volume compression with the sound cranked up to to point that there is some distortion at times. An audiophile record this is definitely not.
A cynic might describe this album as an ersatz John Martyn English folk record, but Ryley Walker deserves credit for so wholeheartedly plunging into this interesting corner of the music world and in the end acquitting himself with a degree of class. And perhaps a newer generation might be attracted to the English folk scene through Walker’s music.
(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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