An Eclectic Gastronomy of Sound
I’m far from the first one to comment on it, but Ryley Walker’s music sounds a lot (I mean a whole lot) like music made in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s by John Martyn, Tim Buckley, Bert Jansch, Van Morrison and other similar artists. One is tempted to use the word “derivative” in regards to Walker’s music. Though, that word is fairly negative in its connotations and I do like the music Walker is making. If it’s derivative, it’s done with a lot of enthusiasm and it’s done very well.
But therein lies the conflict… the Ryley Walker Conundrum, you might say. Which would make a good band name. But the conundrum is my own. I find myself of two minds when listening to his music. On the surface it seems ready-made for my tastes. I love that folk-jazz hybrid popularized by Martyn, Buckley, Terry Callier, Nick Drake, Pentangle, et al. That acid folk, that psychedelic folk…whatever you want to call it. Yet, I also find myself bothered some by the extent to which he sounds like those artists. At times, it comes perilously close (to my ears) to outright copying.
Now, I’m not saying Walker is trying to copy his influences. I’m not saying he’s consciously ripping them off (though maybe he is, I don’t know – but I’d suspect not). But his guitar playing, his entire image down to the album cover art is so heavily indebted to those 60’s/70’s progenitors of the genre, that you have to wonder how much is intentional and how much is just plain zeal for and love of that style. Apparently, Walker realizes these perceptions as well, as he comments in a recent interview with noisey.vice.com: “I get some shit sometimes for wearing my influences on my sleeve. But it’s a pretty fair argument. I like who I like a whole lot.”
Going back a year or so, his first album, All Kinds of You, struck me mainly for how uncannily his singing sounded like folk legend Bert Jansch, and how much the music recalled Jansch, John Renbourn, and Anne Briggs. One would expect him to have developed more of his own style by his second album, but the reverse seems to have happened. I hear even more influences in Primrose Green (Martyn and Buckley the most prominent).
Even the title Primrose Green (reportedly named after a concoction of whiskey and morning glory seeds devised by Walker and his friends) echoes the song title “Primrose Hill” from Martyn’s 1970 album The Road to Ruin. “Sweet Satisfaction”, as a particularly obvious example, starts off like a clone of Martyn circa Bless the Weather, moving into more free-jazz Martyn territory circa Outside In. To his credit, Walker does eventually lead the song in a different direction, into a chaotic wall of noise freakout (though even the video for the song is somewhat akin to Jodorowsky’s early 70’s surreal films). The album cover art of Primrose Green is as if Nick Drake stepped into Van Morrison’s cover for 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir (and in fact, Walker’s covered Van Morrison’s later “Fair Play”).
Most reviews I’ve read of Primrose Green do mention his influences, but what about the average listener? Do they pick up on these touchstones, these “derivations”, as well? Or is it just music geekiness on my part? Much of Walker’s audience is presumably too young to have experienced that first round of folk-jazz directly. I wonder if they then think that what Walker’s doing is original, and don’t realize the debt he owes to those forebears. Then again, the average person may not even care.
Yet, I wonder, should an artist always be pushing forward and breaking new ground? Creating something entirely new? Is any art really “new”, though? Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is influenced in some way by what came before, even if it’s an unconscious influence. But are there limits to how close to an original something should be? If so, who’s to say what those limits are? It all comes down to personal taste and one’s own perceptions of what’s genuine, what’s good, what’s bad.
In another interview (with stereogum), Walker says “You can be really far out and make really unique stuff, but while taking from the past but always trying to go forward and look to the future.” Taking him at face value, he’s putting his own spin on music he likes, in his mind honoring it by adhering so closely to its principles and tropes. He, at least, thinks he’s adding something and making something new. And even if he was playing straight covers of John Martyn, Bert Jansch, and the others, his music would be filtered through his own personality and musical skills. That would be enough to make it different (if not totally “new”) on some level.
Then there’s the question, “If we’ve heard this all before, what’s the point”? I feel that a factor in the appeal of his music to many (myself included) can be attributed to wanting to hear more of what they like. I mean, this style of music’s heyday ended 40 years ago. Most of those original artists are dead or no longer recording music like that anymore. One could keep listening to the “old stuff”, enjoying it, maybe even finding new things in it, but it’s human nature to want more – especially for rabid music fans. By bringing this style of music back, it’s being exposed to a new (often young) audience by a young guy (a peer, in effect). Older listeners who miss having new albums by those favorites now have something to buzz in their ears as well. As an added bonus, Walker’s music may introduce new fans to those original psych-jazz-folk forebears.
It’ll be interesting to see where he takes his music in the future and if he’ll find more of his own voice.
In the end, I like Walker’s music, but it doesn’t hit the same spot for me as the original artists his music currently finds root in. Then again, I realize my perceptions may be clouded a bit from what I’ve heard and what I know about those roots. It’s okay to respond to music on a gut-level, or an emotional level – and most people do just that – without over analyzing it. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with putting it under a microscope and holding it to ideals, though those ideals will always be biased to some degree, and in the mind(s) of the examiner(s). Which doesn’t make them less valid.
The intellect can influence the emotion…and therein lies The Ryley Walker Conundrum.
(“Dude, just enjoy the music!”, I can imagine many of you saying. And I hear ya.)