Load a promotional copy of Ryley Walker’s fifth solo album into iTunes and the descriptor “prog fucking rock” appears beneath the title and his name. It’s a slyly humorous detail that speaks volumes; most obviously, about his deep, oft-declared love for that music, which has a role here, but also his habit of self-mocking. Whether it’s in interviews, onstage chat or his Twitter feed, Walker is always ready with a pin, to prick truth’s painful swelling or any hint of pretentiousness.
If there’s a place where that self-consciousness falls away and Walker roams (almost) free, it’s in the authentic present of his music. It was the absence of what he called “smoke and mirrors” that first drew him to Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and John Martyn for 2014’s All Kinds Of You, which introduced a guitarist skilled beyond his 24 years, undisguised influences or no. A year later, Primrose Green confirmed him as a striking songwriting and instrumental talent committed to the cause, with an irresistibly sun-glazed, stoner jazz-folk style that leaned heavily on Pentangle and Tim Buckley as well as the mystic flow and vocal tics of Van Morrison.
As a comparison of the Primrose Green and Astral Weeks covers shows, Walker’s image played to retro romance and the idea of the gilded prodigy. That might have seen a lesser artist forever shackled to his sources but Walker soon moved on. After the all-instrumental Land Of Plenty (one of two fine hook-ups with Bill MacKay) came 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, which was to some degree a transitional album. Its opener, “The Halfwit In Me”, showed that although ’70s UK folk still loomed large, Walker was keen to explore his other interests, namely Chicago-school experimentalism, improv jazz and chamber pop.
Attempting a bold departure the English folk style, Ryley Walker and his pickup band’s pseudo-jazz flourishes and prog-jam pretentions drift in search of a destination.
“It’s a weird record. I don’t even know if I like it.” That’s Ryley Walker speaking of Deafman Glance, his fourth record and his furthest departure yet from the neo-English folk revival sound with which he has been most associated. For listeners who have followed Walker from his debut record on hyper-retro label Tompkins Square, Deafman Glance will register as a seismic stylistic shift, and one that may shake off some among those longtime listeners who expect him to stay a course charted by his early impressions. [ . . . ]
The hilariously self-deprecating musician speaks about his third album ‘Deafman Glance,’ and premieres its driving second single “Opposite Middle.”
Ryley Walker is sipping a cappuccino at Gaslight Coffee, a pricey but cozy coffee spot in Logan Square, one of Chicago’s hippest neighbourhoods, when he starts telling me how things used to be. “This whole block used to be empty,” he says. “I’m getting to that point where I’ve lived in this city long enough that I’m that doing that jaded fogey thing: ‘I remember when this was a mom and pop restaurant or an empty storefront! It wasn’t always brunch!’” He asks if I ever went to a now-shuttered underground venue called the Mopery, which was located just blocks away from us.
“The first fingerpicking show I did was there,” he continues. “It’s now a gym. It’s funny to look up and see people running on treadmills exactly where I’d literally rip gravity bongs. Now these people are bettering their lives there?”
Times change, and while Chicago’s neighbourhoods have gentrified and familiar storefronts have been replaced with bougie brunch spots and four dollar coffee shops like the one we’re sitting in, Walker has also drastically changed since he moved here from Rockford – a quiet but unmotivating Illinois city 80 miles northwest known for being home to Cheap Trick – 11 years ago. Though he came to the city at 17 for college, he quickly dropped out of both Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Chicago to, in his words, “become the scene’s annoying little brother” and make music. “I just feel like I rolled the dice and became an indie rock dude,” he says. “It’s just dumb luck. By all means I should just be a fat load on a couch with my career choice being the check from a truck company that hit me or something.” [ . . . ]
Noting the influence by English folk giants Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, and Ann Briggs (listen to “Go Your Way” at 23:26), Chicago’s Ryley Walker gives a groovy studio performance and interview with Seattle radio KEXP. The first clip is from 2014 and second is a year later, 2015.