Bert Jansch (and Pentangle), Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Tim Hardin… these are just some of the ghosts that haunt the fringes of Primrose Green, the excellent second album from Chicago guitarist and songwriter Ryley Walker. Whilst his debut showed promise, not least in his tumbling, cascasing acoustic guitar playing, Primrose Green performs an impressive double stunt in better showcasing both his songwriting and singing on one hand, and his ambition to create something looser, freer and more spontaneous on the other.
To achieve the latter, Walker has employed a high level, fluent and creative band of seasoned Chicago jazz players. Walker understands the John Martyn of Inside Out as much as he understands the John Martyn of Bless The Weather. Yet the songs here are also richly melodic, evocative and pastoral – the combination of inspired writing and productive improvising results in something freewheeling, psychedelic and fluid – music that is proud to wear its influences on its sleeve, but which also seems in its own way daring and personal.
The opening title track is both wistful and colourful, gently nostalgic and at the same time free roaming. It shares the immersive, hypnotic appeal of some of the best tracks on All Kinds Of You (Walker’s debut album from 2013), but his vocal delivery seems more nuanced, and the arrangement is both thicker and more effective. Piano provides useful shading, sometimes doubling key lines and at others adding counter-melodies or fuller textures. Brian Sulpizio’s lead guitar playing is subtle and thoughtful and all the musicians here seem to be acutely aware of the need to create space in this kind of ensemble. This allows for the performance to start softly and pick up intensity, with carefully rendered dynamic contrasts throughout.
Perhaps the only weakness here comes with the slightly limited and predictable lyrics (“head for the Primrose Green, gets me hiii-iiiii-iiiigh”), given that the music already offers such a sense of relaxed escapism. Summer Dress picks up where the rolling, undulating rhythms of Twin Oaks Pt 1 on All Kinds Of You left off, emphasising its triplet feel with liberal syncopation (one of many brilliant, sparring performances from drummer Frank Rosaly). Walker’s voice is at its loosest and most Buckley-esque here, his lyrics somewhat obscured by the sense of being lost in the moment.
The musicians play fully and without restraint, but in such a way that offers support and commentary to Walker’s dreamy reverie. Ben Boye, who also plays in The Cairo Gang, offers a slightly distorted electric piano solo on Same Minds that would be abrasive were it not for the sensual, dreamy way it is subsumed into the surrounding waterfall of sound. In fact, that sense of blend is a feature common throughout Primrose Green as a whole (listen to the questing, expansive introduction to Love Can Be Cruel, where all the musicians are making strong individual contributions, but never at the expense of the overall sound and groove).
Griffiths Buck Blues provides an opportunity to showcase a more familiar, purposefully traditional aspect of Walker’s music, although the superb, radical cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm also offers an imposing presence. Without the presence of a rhythm section, it provides some essential stylistic and textural contrast. With delicate, brushed drums, On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee also provides some light and clarity (particularly in its purposefully more focused and articulate vocal and in its evocation of river baptisms).
At the other end of the spectrum, Love Can Be Cruel, a breathlessly exciting, restless and turbulent group performance, is one of Walker’s best songs so far and Sweet Satisfaction has a powerful sense of narrative and journey (albeit one slightly hamstrung by its strong resemblance to John Martyn’s take on I’d Rather Be The Devil). Sulpizo’s guitar sound is brooding and menacing against the more bucolic nature of Walker’s fingerpicking, and by the end he has descended into a brilliant maelstrom of chaos and noise. Cooper Crain, a founder member of Bitchin Bajas produces, and has clearly found a natural way of capturing a strong live-in-the-studio vibe.
It feels like the musicians are very much in control of their sound here, and it takes an assured production hand to get that sense across. Primrose Green may not be the most original of statements, but it definitely amounts to more than the sum of its parts and there is the lingering impression that Walker is only just getting started.