Album review: Ryley Walker – ‘Course In Fable’: Chicago baroque-folk genius brings the prog to his latest dazzler

The Breakdown

There's more than a little whisper of prog fusion about in recent times, and you have to say it's a fiery element that when handled well can be rapturous: witness Jaga Jazzist's prog-disco album from last summer, Pyramid; even Field Music's delicious Plumb. It's likely an album that like so many of the best you'll wake up to one morning and find is threaded you like your vascular system, has stolen up suddenly on you. It's so deep it's the sort of album that, is as Wire would term it, a text. Not one for an easy summer cruise to the beach then, maybe; one more for attentive listening party. Immersive, wayward, free and insouciant, there really is no one quite where he's at.

TROUBADOUR genius touched by the hand of the Tim Buckley, collaborator on some very fine albums, sole architect of yet other records that fall very much in that same category, and one of the funniest and most candid tweeters in music: Ryley Walker is all of these.

He’s set to release his new solo album, among a complex catalogue of other releases and brilliant two-handed musical conversations with people like Charles Rumback, Bill MacKay, Daniel Bachman and Kikagayu Moyo – fellow travellers out in the interesting and experimental edges of Americana, psych-folk, and folk.

On this new set the brilliantly freewheelin’ guitar style he has finds a path between the twin towers of Sam Prekop and an almost baroque soft-rock thang, melodically complex, jazz-inflected, diaristic and wholly true to the Ryley aesthetic.

Although he’s moved to New York, the new album is wholly Chicago in spirit, with that jazz-folk-prog-postrock inventiveness twining. It sounds like a really strong catalogue of work just keeps getting stronger.

Ryley grew up in the Windy City; and it was to one of the prime movers of that turn-of-the-century scene, John McEntire, that Ryley turned for the making of Course In Fable; the Tortoise and The Sea & Cake man being the perfect foil behind the faders. Though of course if you bring John on board for a record, he’s gonna get involved beyond that.

“I told him to take the mixes and have at it,” Ryley says.

The result is a rich, immersive, complex, off-the-cuff, playful; Ryley half-jokingly calls it his “prog record” – but if you follow him on Twitter, you’ll know he has a deep and abiding love for Genesis’ Duke and other such dusty treasures.

“The pop element is never too far from the surface, even when shit gets weird,” we’re assured.

The album also features the lovely Bill MacKay, whose got an album out on Drag City with Nathan Bowles soon himself, and with whom Ryley’s made a gorgeous brace of long-playing instrumental essays, including 2017’s Spiderbeetlebee; drummer Ryan Jewell who, have you seen him laying it out out live? Wow, is back at the drums, and Andrew Scott Young is in on bass.

His work just keeps getting more labyrinthine, deeper, free-thinking ideas allowed to tumble forth into the rich stew of sound; and with the line-up he has behind him. all the chops are assembled. I mean, have you witnessed him live? He’s truly transcendent, the gentlest hand on the tiller, knowing exactly when and what’s needed to send a song skyward in the moment. Ryley calls this new one his “prog record” and he’s kinda joking – but remember, he actually does love Genesis, recently espousing the virtues of 1980 album Duke on Twitter.

Although the guitar is always front and centre, as it should be on a RW album, there’s also beauteous string arrangements from Douglas Jenkinsm of the Portland Cello Project. Yep, there’s tricky time signatures at play, too. After you, my fine companion. Let’ go see how it measures up against astral-folk classics such as Primrose Green and Golden Songs That Have Been Sung.

Ryley Walker, photographed by Emma Smith

“Striking Down Your Big Premiere” is a grand entrée, chords ringing clear and crisp over thundering toms, proggy lead odysseys taking flight and retreating again, just about staying within the prog event horizon of being in service the song. And then he sings, his voice a rich, cracked anchor, and you know everything is gonna be ok. At moments the song seems to flutter its lashes more at the territory of Buckley junior, rather than that of Buckley senior; oblique and impressionistic lyricism seeps into your brain and tells a story beyond the strictly literal. It proper early-Seventies out in the instrumental breaks, which almost demand UV-respondent cloaks.

“Rang Dizzy” was the first single drop a little bit back, and maybe we’re in more familiar Ryley country, baroque and tricksy and melodious; but dropping back on the tide towards the innovative pastoralism, The Left Banke swinging out in a wider folk vantage. Strings delight and chorus and Ryley exclaims: “I’m so fried / Brain dizzy inside / Fuck me, I’m alive,” seemingly in both senses of the word wonderment. Elsewhere there’s talk of dreams being projected on national monuments, extending hands to all probable possibilities; lyrically, and musically, Ryley operates in a set of dimensions which we can peer into investigate but never wholly grasp – which I’m sure is entirely intentional. Such is the nature of musical genius.

“A Lenticular Slap” really is lenticular, transmuting from a riverine arpeggio, notes glittering and cascading, to suddenly being bent and refracted through a lense of Waitsian, Beefheartian blues addle, jerky as a skeleton dance, all shoulders and knees, before wheeling you back into a (slightly) smoother jazz-folk, tripping forward a la Lorca, beautiful, restless, always seeking new crannies to explore and get musical tendrils into. It’ll take many listens to really appreciate what’s being fused in here on an emotional, let alone a musicological, level. Instrumental bars of ever-shifting keys and time signatures get all math-rock-folk-rock on your cerebellum. Check the perspiring wah-wah final passage, with its Seventies’ vocal yearning.

“Axis Bent” we covered three weeks or so ago, and you get have a bite of it down below. As mentioned above, it really does seem to steer a course between the deeper Chicago alt.jazz inflections of Sam Prekop, The Sea and Cake, et al, and a wider radio-rock angularity – witness those opening drums, that sweet little trill of guitar maybe nodding at Lindsey Buckingham, the organ and synth interplaying in a just pre-yacht rock creaminess. It seems to play back and forth between the two states, Ryley’s delight in a loose and appreciative musicality casting with the breeze, tacking into the wind for verses that play more within the baroque pocket before casting off again. Suddenly distortion pedals are tromped for an almost Peter Frampton rifferama, Ryley humming away through an equal dip of fuzz before the song entirely collapses, springs back to life as clean and bright as you like – just to show you it can.

“Clad With Bunk” is am oceanic odyssey of acoustic fusion, with imagery of beds of lavender, a stagey, theatrical feel – Ryley somewhere under the super trouper’s shine, the song unfolding at the stately pace of a soliloquy, an exposition of the self in major and minor sevenths. It gains grandiosity, swells in the most unhurried way. reveals a waltzy swing and plateaus through dual guitars and synth before stomping a boot down for some acid guitar and a blurrier flight through free-associating lyrics.

“Pond Scum Ocean” – like its surrounding tracks, surreal triple wordplay is the titular order of the day – begins in electro shuffle and ring maybe more Berlin than Chicago, the guitars creeping around eerily within the depths of the song as a lightly dubby bass steadies the ship. It has a graveyard rock’n’roll quality for a while, Fall rockabilly; among everything else Ryley here shows he loves repetition. You’re almost three minutes in before the song shifts seamlessly into folkier waters, shakes it mane and blisses out with some woodblocks.

“Shiva With Dustpan”: the title itself illustrates the furious collision of ideas at work on this record. From the theological to the demotic in one image: the Hindu Supreme Lord who creates, protects and transforms the universe. With a dustpan. Cleaning up, no doubt, after us after this arse of a year and counting. For this final track he comes into shore, though there’s some very ambitious and spacey bliss washing about in here in a more typically Ryley slice of widescreen Americana, loose and lovely.

What, then, to make of Course In Fable? Well: it’s wholly Ryley, yet more so. Always inclined to survey the heavens in his ambition, he’s simply following the muse, and he has very good form in trusting to that instinct. Folk meets jazz meets prog was an almost inevitable step, given the nature of his catalogue and loves up until now; he unleashed it and like so many of his heroes and guiding lights, it’s up to us whether we can get a fix in our more mortal brains.

There’s more than a little whisper of prog fusion about in recent times, and you have to say it’s a fiery element that when handled well can be rapturous: witness Jaga Jazzist’s prog-disco album from last summer, Pyramid, even Field Music’s delicious Plumb.

It’s likely an album that like so many of the best you’ll wake up to one morning and find is threaded through you like your vascular system, has stolen up suddenly on you. It’s so deep it’s the sort of album that, is as Wire would term it, a text.

Not one for an easy summer cruise to the beach then, maybe; one more for attentive listening party. Immersive, wayward, free and insouciant, there really is no one quite where he’s at.

Ryley Walker’ Course In Fable will be released by Husky Pants digitally, on CD and on vinyl on April 2nd; you can pre-order your copy over at Bandcamp right now, or make contact with your trusted local record emporium.

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