For the modern successful musician there’s a tricky balancing act between recorded output and life on the road. Whilst in the past live shows promoted albums, the shifting platforms of profitability have resulted in a realigning of a musicians priorities.
Previously it was normal for bands to disappear from the public eye for months, even years to write and record albums, the fact you now make most of your money by being on the road has made that a luxury that few but the very biggest bands can afford. The natural path might then seem to lead to a world where bands simply tour and play live, foregoing the need for expensive studio sessions and ringing the death knell for recorded music, but that doesn’t quite work either.
In days gone by a good live show was crucial for promoting your recorded output, now the two seem to have reversed roles. Recorded output has become an advert for the money spinning tour; getting good reviews, radio play and online hype remain as crucial as ever, but your aim is no longer to sell records but tickets.
Ryley Walker’s new record, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, is a product of the commercial model for his life in the music industry. The tracks were written on the road, at times even being composed live, previously he might have spent months writing these songs in a studio, this albums gestation occurred on the road, only briefly returning to a studio for its final, crucial composition.
What impact will these shifts in the musical process have on recorded music, on live music, only time will tell, but learning to live with the hand you are dealt will remain vital in achieving the goal of making music and making a living.
We’ve regaled regular readers with the story of the first time we saw Ryley Walker, the perfect setting, the mesmeric guitar work, the perfect, enticing vocal. One of those moments where everyone present seemed to stop, sit back and just listen, it seemed like everyone there was entirely in the moment. Except with hindsight the one person who seems most unsure about Ryley Walker circa-2015 was Ryley himself. By all accounts he wasn’t quite as taken with his album, Primrose Green, as everyone else seemed to be. Whilst his recorded output was going in one direction, he felt his live band, and his songwriting was going in another. Ryley would road-test material, often little more than a vague snapshot of a song, he’d compose lyrics on the stage, build tracks around simple riffs that would slowly evolve as the band played them live.
These rough sketches, these riffs and single lyrics, would eventually become much of his new record, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. The album lyrically marks a return to his hometown, Chicago. It was an almost accidental occurrence, perhaps inevitable, that as Ryley toured the world his mind drifted back to the life he’d left behind, on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam he found himself singing, “you could find me at The Roundabout”. Whilst there’s an obvious imagery to roundabout, more than that it’s a bar Ryley used to frequent in Wisconsin, as he puts it, it’s a track about, “any of those bars in the mid-West where the beer is $2 for a giant glass, and they’ve got chicken fingers and fries for $5.”
Physically the album also marks a return to Chicago, the city that had so inspired Ryley in his younger day. Inspired by bands like Tortoise and Gastr del Sol, Ryley would attend the improv night run by Wilco’s LeRoy Bach, and when Ryley decided for the first time to enlist the help of a producer on his new record, there was only one name on his list. Ryley and LeRoy camped out in his studio over the Christmas holidays and recorded Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. “It was everything I wanted it to be,” Ryley enthuses, “I would go to LeRoy’s house every other day with a riff, and we would take it from there.”
Both musically and lyrically the album that these sessions produced was a dramatic shift from Ryley’s previous output. While Primrose Green seemed to exist in an almost dream like world, where, with more than a touch of the hippy culture of the 1960’s, Ryley was seemingly awe struck by the beauty of the world around him; Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is an altogether more personal, and real world piece. While once he seemed to want to do little more than paint a picture with his lyrics, here he seems more willing to invite us into his own thoughts, and it’s a much more arresting album because of that decision. There’s more than a touch of Mark Kozelek about his delivery, the words seem to tumble out of him, with little in the way of a filter; this emotionally honest delivery sees him touch on issues without necessarily resolving his thoughts on them. There’s a thread of references to religion, and a seeming battle between his lifestyle and his, “Christian education.” The Ryley we’re presented with on this record seems to prop up bars where he, “could take any motherfucker home who loves me”, whilst he longs for a simpler, more traditional lifestyle. There’s a sort of unwanted arrogance that he grapples with, as he puts it, “a wise ass wisdom, wasted on the young”, it’s a battle many musicians have confronted, the shallowness of life in the industry that drags you away from your hometown and makes you a star, but isn’t ultimately as fulfilling as you’d always dreamed it might be.
Whilst his progression as a lyricist is fascinating, Ryley has always been a fabulously gifted guitarist and that certainly hasn’t been curbed on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. If anything he’s become an even more versatile player, flittering between genres with the consummate ease of a prodigious talent. Take the sublime Sullen Mind, it begins with a rapid, fluttering acoustic that Bert Jansch would be proud of, but across the track the guitar tone slowly shifts before ending with a wailing electric, more akin to post-rock than anything that would be traditionally described as folk. The major musical shift though is probably not in the guitars, but the instruments that accompany his playing; the influence of LeRoy Bach’s production is obvious across the record. The intro to A Choir Apart incorporates the surprisingly effective combo of a double bass and what sounds almost like a synth playing tuned white-noise, if such a thing exists, The Great And Undecided has a spectacularly good piano section in the middle, and the bubbling synths of the exquisite The Roundabout, sound like they’re lifted straighy out of the Elbow song book.
Best of all is the sublime, Funny Thing She Said. Over six minutes in length, it begins like a smoky-jazz bar; rich, piano chords, twitchy brushed percussion and languid, improvised sounding guitars. Ryley enters, sounding more like Jeff Buckley than ever, “funny thing she said to me, I could see you giving me a child.” It’s a striking opening lyric, and the whole track seems to be a dissection of his own inability to commit, much of it delivered not from his own words, but those of the titular “she”, who seems to tear him to shreds with her cutting questioning, “why’d you even come over last night? You’re chiming in the wrong shade of blue, Saturday night meant nothing, but I know Sunday was true.” It builds to a stunning crescendo, of tremulous, discordant strings, with nods to the wonderful Dirty Three, before gently meandering out, slowly extinguishing like the flame of the relationships the strong so powerfully describes.
Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is a remarkable piece of work, one that more than anything seems to truly stamp Ryley’s own character onto record, whilst his musicianship has never been in doubt, many people questioned whether there was really anything original about his work. This should put that question to bed, because on this record you’re not scrambling to think who it reminds you of, on this wonderful collection, he simply sounds like Ryley Walker, and that’s high praise indeed.
Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is out August 19th via Dead Oceans. Ryley Walker tours the UK in November, click HERE for all upcoming shows.