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On his new album, the songwriter both celebrates and transcends ordinary existence, finding revelation in small, perfect turns of song.


For last year’s lovely Primrose Green, Ryley Walker assembled a cast of Chicago free-jazz fellow travelers, interspersing his spare, blues-y folk blues with shimmers of cool fusion-y keyboards, deep plunks of acoustic bass, abstract and questing drum rhythms and nocturnal meditations in electric guitar. This time around, on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans), much of his backing band is back, along with producer/arranger/player LeRoy Bach from Wilco, and the sounds are similar but more lived in. Where before the Chicago jazz overlayer was just that, an addition, now it feels integral, relaxed and permeating. The clarinet that rises out of “The Halfwit in Me,” the drum/bass duet that kicks off “A Choir Apart,” the extended technique string sounds that introduce closing “Age Old Tale” all feel less like experiments, more like sturdy, always-there elements of songs. Where Primrose Green discovered sounds, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung ruminates, considers and incorporates.

The music is dense and layered but wonderfully shot through with space, with textures that ebb and flow to make room for each other. Walker’s voice, warm and casual with wide intervals between phrases, slips between shivering bead curtains of electric and acoustic guitar, bass plunks reverberate in still puddles of quiet, melodies unfurl slowly, in bursts and stops, catching strength in the intervals to push onward once again.

Individual players are worth mentioning – Anton Hatwich again ventures from the low-end, conjuring basslines so round and reverberant that they seem to take up three-dimensional space. Brian Sulpizio carves out slow arc’ing figures in electric guitar that lift off from Walker’s picking into speculative air. Ben Boye finds cool, electronic keyboard grooves in “The Halfwit in Me,” then switches up to ecstasy (and autoharp) in the final “Age Old Tale.” There are three drummers – Frank Rosaly, Quin Kirchner and Ryan Jewell – not a one of them confined in the least by monotonous, steady time. Whitney Johnson, who also plays as Matchess, adds viola in several plays.

The lyrics are sharper this time around, touching on mid-life concerns – children, parents, faith (or lack of it), artistic struggle and career dissatisfaction – with ordinary words strung in elliptical patterns. They sound like conversation but read more like poetry. They flirt with long-term commitment but leave in the morning. They crack self-deprecating jokes and wonder about Jesus. They don’t get in the way of the music – that is clearly still the main thing here – but neither do they cede the territory.

It’s hard to pick a favorite in an album that slips by as easily as this one, but if I had to, I’d say “Roundabout.” It’s maybe the least orchestrated of these tunes, relying mostly on acoustic picking and Walker’s voice to invoke a buoyant optimism. (Against odds, it seems. In the lyrics Walker can’t afford a round of drinks.)  It distills small joys and setbacks into a breezy motion that seems like progress, but is, perhaps, only a series of left turns that left you where you started. And maybe that’s the charm of this album, that it presents life in small slices, good and bad, hedged in by music that glows with a casual charm.

Golden Sings both celebrates and transcends ordinary existence, finding revelation in small, perfect turns of song.

Photo credit: Tom Sheehan/Via Dead Oceans

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