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Posted on March 31st, 2015 (2:00 pm) by Matt LaBarbera

Being a guy from Illinois in his mid-twenties, largely associated with a variety of free-jazz and noise acts from the Chicago area, it’s a little hard to imagine that someone like Ryley Walker would turn into the latest incarnation of the American folk troubadour. His first album, All Kinds of You, which flew criminally under-the-radar in 2014, inaugurated him into the scene as one of the vital guitar guys—Daniel Bachman, Steve Gunn, Glenn Jones, to name a few—playing fluid, utterly gorgeous, far-out folk, but supported by his gutsy, full-bodied vocals. His newest issue, Primrose Green, sees him expand his sound, taking full advantage of an expanded ensemble to create warm, wistful, jazzy folk-rock. It’s a bursting, bucolic record, mellifluous and loose, perfect to usher in the spring.

Despite the easy association with a handful of contemporary American folk artists, Walker and his ensemble are much more interested in songs than long-form Appalachian ragas. Eponymous and opening, “Primrose Green” right away establishes Walker in that esteemed British folk tradition that bubbled up through the late '60s and early '70s, exemplified by such luminaries as Roy Harper and Michael Chapman. The fluent guitar, tinkling keys, rambling bass, each individual sound is loose and light, but layered thickly, describing a lush and welcoming composition, as Walker invites listeners to, “head for the primrose green,” an invitation deeper into the album. Cuts like “Griffith Buck’s Blues” are equally steeped in a British Isles feel with the sprightly guitar, generous bowing, and pump organ sitting beneath it all. “Summer Dress” begins with some loose hi-hat heavy percussion, walking bass, and sparkling vibraphones, gesturing to the listener the jazz pedigree of the record before Walker runs through, wielding guitar and vocals that at their best recall some Buckley-like operatic acrobatics. A rollicking and rambling track, supported extensively by the open rhythm section and generous mixing. That is one of the prominent characterizations of Primrose Green; it’s never stuffy, always speckled with sun and pastoral grace.

One of the bigger curveballs on the album is the song “Sweet Satisfaction,” which has a fuzzy guitar roaring into the otherwise springy instrumental arrangement. “Can you hear my call?” Walker howls as the steady, bellowing guitar mounts, until finally the whole tune shifts and everyone picks up the pace, turning the track into a driving rock number, dominated by snowballing fuzz guitar. It’s the closest the ensemble comes to breaking composure. A similar guitar appears at the end of “Love Can Be Cruel,” but instead serves as a way to wind the song down.

Primrose Green spends most of its time playing with and retooling the chamber folk idiom. Various embellishments on sound spiral out of the body of each composition, testifying to both the skill of Walker's songwriting and the cohesiveness of the ensemble. The somber, sighing cello that accompanies Walker on "The High Road" or the fragile-as-a-dragonfly's-wing brushed percussion of “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” are such touches that terminate in little curlicues or bundle into rosettes. Even "Hiding in the Roses," absent of any other players, reaches a fullness through Walker's vocals and his distinct, cascading finger-picking. It's a culmination of attitude, style, and execution into an Arcadian baroque, a fanciful and full expression that successfully avoids overbearing or cloying artifice.

There’s the cultural autostereotype of Merry Olde England that still pops up from time to time, and while Ryley Walker and his ensemble most likely have little allegiance to the crown, there is most certainly this theme of nostalgia for a deep rural sensibility that has waned to a pinpoint. In the same way the Kishwaukee River is venerated and ancient by the simple appellation of “old,” Primrose Green recuperates a history and carries it back to 2015. Picking up where those '70s British folkies left off seems to be the mission, but all the while transforming it, or maybe just repotting it in American soil, installing a primrose green on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a stunning effort, lush and abundant, indicating a richness of sound, voice and vision. Through this wealth of vision, both back and forwards in time, Ryley Walker installs himself as the marshal of a rustic, overflowing springtime, one to throw up the maypole.

Track List:

  1. Primrose Green
  2. Summer Dress
  3. Same Minds
  4. Griffiths Buck's Blues
  5. Love Can Be Cruel
  6. On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee
  7. Sweet Satisfaction
  8. The High Road
  9. All Kinds of You
  10. Hiding in the Roses
Ryley Walker - Primrose Green Review
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

88 / 100
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