Ryley Walker is not of this time. Drawing likely comparisons to Tim Buckley, John Martyn and Adrian Legg for his fingerpicked folk guitar style, Walker’s sophomore LP, Primrose Green, is less a collection of songs than it is a series of esoteric compositions culled from the ether of yore. Like recently unearthed gems from Gary Higgins and Vashti Bunyan, Primrose Green is a flashback that will not soon wither with age, no matter its immediate reception.
More bandleader than frontman, Walker isn’t burdened by traditional narrative structures; rather, the Chicago-by-way-of-Rockford, Illinois guitar picker and his band of Windy City musicians incorporate lyrical fragments into their alchemy of sound to create a series of mood pieces that flit on a wind, catching one’s ear in passing. Lyrics serve to reflect and reinforce a particular composition’s tone as much as they are used as vocal cues to the musicians working alongside Walker.
This structure is set on the opening track, which spirals for more than a minute, anchored by pianist Ben Boye and bassist Anton Hatwich who counter the dual guitars of Brian Sulpizio and Walker before he sings the first note of the woozy recollection of a night spent under the influence of the title concoction. Primrose Green‘s folk influence is most present when Walker takes the lead as on the blossoming interlude, “Griffith Buck’s Blues”, a dexterous instrumental homage to fellow Rockford native and renowned horticulturalist; the fragmentary thrashing of “Love Can Be Cruel”; the ambling “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee”, a murky tale of a riverside baptism; the verdant yet broken “The High Road”, which doubles as the album’s most narrative moment; and stark closer, “Hide in the Roses”, Walker’s lone solo moment.
Where Primrose Green comes most alive is during its improvisational moments. Organically conjuring the jazz-rock influence of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, Walker and fellow Chicago jazz mainstays incorporate vibraphone, pump organ and double bass on the sprawling “Summer Dress” and bellowing “Same Minds”, where Walker repetitively utters,” Somebody better calm me on down / Somebody had better cry / Cause we got the same hearts / We got the same little minds”, as if trapped in brambles. Melding folk and jazz with primitive blues shades, the animalist lurking of “Sweet Satisfaction” is a showcase for drummer Fran Rosaly, who, with Walker’s hyperkinetic fretwork, simulates Eugene O’Neill’s frenzied heartbeat of The Emperor Jones.
Upholding his place alongside the likes of contemporary William Tyler, Walker represents the past yin to Tyler’s futuristic yang. Aggressive yet restrained, Walker, his band and its extended cast of contributors, which includes Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), Whitney Johnson (viola and backing vocals) and producer Cooper Crain, explore the full spectrum of what instrumental music can infer. A headphone trip for the ages, Primrose Green is a diaphanous tapestry that envelopes our collective musical history. Unlike his musical antecedents, who most have discovered after the fact, Walker is a treasure we can witness first-hand.