Growing up listening to jam band music can be more of an advantage than a disadvantage in a lot of ways. For starters, it can give you an even springboard at below zero elevation from which you climb your way back up to embracing more interesting music. With so many of the jam band godheads — like The Dead, Phish and Dave Matthews Band — making their unpredictability and willingness to experiment with a wide net of different genres their calling card, it can be a valuable lesson for young and adventurous music fans to always give bands, albums and musical movements the benefit of the doubt.
Ryley Walker understands this and wears this formative listening period like a badge. On his newest album Course in Fable, he has mined the jam influence of his youth and blended it with dashes of Chicago Indie Rock, John Fahey “American-Primitive” acoustics and a heavy dose of early British Prog. A seemingly effortless magic trick that resulted in his best record to date.
When tracing these influences with Walker, seeing how he could leap frog from one to the other makes a lot of sense in a way. People were puzzled by his admitted love of Dave Matthews until they heard his 2018 reimagining of Matthews’ The Lillywhite Sessions. Hearing that record, you can easily see how being ignited creatively by Dave’s odd song structures as a teen would eventually lead you to someone like Jim O’Rourke. And with mega-producer Steve Lillywhite having a hand in recording both Matthews and Peter Gabriel, the similarities become less of a stretch when you really think about it.
All of this becomes apparent within the first crash hits of the album’s opening track “Striking Down Your Big Premiere.” The song opens on an arpeggiated guitar and synth riff that recalls moments on Genesis’ Foxtrot transitioning into a righteously noodly guitar solo before easing into a folk-rock groove.
Produced by studio wizard and Tortoise and Sea and Cake member John McEntire, each of these ingredients are treated delicately, making the transitions known but not forced. The playing on the album also has a lot to do with that, as the difficult time signatures on a song like “Clad with Bunk” come off sounding inspired rather than the awkward attempts of many jam bands.
Lyrically, Walker lays bare the many struggles he has had over the last few years. With his rich baritone, he makes casual references to his addictions that never read as a punchline but rather a documentation of his experiences. “Palpitations tick on time, I only wanted one and that was gonna be fine,” he sings on “A Lenticular Slap” showing his powerlessness. “Mary mother of crack rocks the sun comes through the blinds.”
After a string of thrilling live collaborative improv and avant garde releases, Course In Fable marks the first official solo release from Walker on his new label Husky Pants Records. Fully clean and sober, Ryley unlocked a new gear within himself where he is playing, singing and experimenting in a way that is more confidently assured than ever before. Course in Fable is Ryley Walker fully activated.
Essential tracks: “Rang Dizzy” “A Lenticular Slap” and “Shiva With a Dustpan”
Prerequisites: Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound and Ryley Walker’s Golden Sings that Have Been Sun