Published Aug 17, 2016Ryley Walker is part of a recent wave of so-called "American Primitive" acoustic guitarists using their technical prowess to take the instrument to rare heights of psychedelia. Walker dazzled with his acoustic guitar odysseys on his last two albums, but his latest, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, takes his sound and songwriting to a new level.
A big challenge to modern folk artists generally has been avoiding the clichés of pastoral imagery in their storytelling; for years, we've been inundated by songs that use mountains, rivers and natural life to convey matters of the heart. A few artists have risen to this challenge by incorporating humour (Father John Misty, Kurt Vile), and now Walker can count himself among their ranks. His notoriously jammy and indulgent soloing is also reined in here, in favour of more accessible and composed structures.
One of the standout tracks is certainly "A Choir Apart," in which Walker does something truly shocking and puts down his guitar for the majority of the song. The verses float on a summery groove laid by just bass, drums and keys, and the guitars only come in for a mere eight-bar chorus. It calls to mind some more tropical-leaning indie pop such as Broken Social Scene's "Looks Just Like the Sun" or "Pacific Theme."
Walker's tempered and refined songwriting is on display in other songs, like the moody, bluesy piano-ballad "Funny Thing She Said," and the loose but simply structured "The Great and Undecided," which bears some resemblance to early '70s Neil Young. "I Will Ask You Twice," meanwhile, begins with the hilarious line "We played footsy with Jesus," but still feels very intimate and tender, led by fingerpicked acoustic guitars.
Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is a personal best for Walker, innovation for the genre and in general, just a damn good listen. (Dead Oceans)