For followers of Lexington, Kentucky’s Warmer Milks, last year's addition of Paul Oldham to Michael Turner’s ever-rotating cast of characters may have been lost amidst a flurry of extraterrestrial folk realms and blazing hardcore lunacy à la In the Process of Weeding Out-era Black Flag shows. But interspersed with all the ferocity was the consciousness of a songwriter, a lost soul-seeking spiritual renewal, notable especially on Turner’s bedroom ditties, which were showcased more fully on releases such as the cassette-only In This Room from the Fuck It Tapes imprint. In a short career built on defying expectations, Turner does it again with Soft Walks, as Oldham’s engineering know-how (coming from years of producing and playing on records by his brother Will and the now cult classics of Palace Music) helps give Michael Turner’s solitary lo-fi folk songs a full, orchestral life.
Showcasing the warmer side of Warmer Milks, Soft Walks dispenses with the anger and fury of Let Your Friends In or 2006’s Radish On Light, whose folk influences were only tangential. Much of those albums relied on a Hair Police-like torrent of violent sounds and warbling reverberation. It may have some fans crying foul, then, to see this music stripped of all that testosterone. However, situating punk and hardcore as part of a lineage of American blues, it would stand to reason that Turner is at least being thematically consistent. After all, is there so much difference between the tales of misery spun by Mississippi Delta bluesmen and the dejected cries of Black Flag’s “Depression”?
Raised in a family of the Charismatic Faith (an offshoot of the Pentecostals --Turner calls it “the Mountain Dew of Christianity”), his first musical exposure came from records of high-octane prayer hymns his mother would perpetually play. For Turner, however, the mega-churches, glossolalia, and overweight, screaming, red-faced preachers proved to be a false spirituality. It may be in that spirit of false spirituality that Turner seeks out his own brand of evangelism. This sense of spiritual awareness is present in the quasi-mystical lyrics of “Wild Springs,” in which Turner spins a yarn of Anytown, USA, crooning slightly off key in the lineage of other vocally imperfect folksters, from Dylan to Young to Oldham, while documenting his feelings of being “a creature captured, raptured into a hole.” Like a phoenix rising out of the needs brought on by isolation, Turner’s joy grows from despair. His lyricism bears similarities to the work of poet Robert Hunter, who penned a hefty portion of lyrics for that psychedelic jugband the Grateful Dead. Wild Spring’s naturalistic message finds redemption in gusts of wind and green sparkling grass; almost Walden-esque in scope, it evokes the spirits of the 19th-century American transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson and the mystic causal relationships explored in Dead tracks like “Ripple” and “Box of Rain.”
Elsewhere, “The Friends” explores Turner’s recurring themes of isolation and lost companionship burgeoning into cosmic awareness. He laments, “Friends used to have me/ Over for wine/ But there’s so much to do/ Not waste it this time,” before the track suddenly spins into a buoyant boogie and group singalong that wouldn’t be out of place on Workingman’s Dead. Final track “Miracles” will bring to mind most fully the Relatively Clean Rivers and Electronic Hole projects of Philip Pearlman, reveling in a Zen-inspired message of playing the hand you’re dealt in life (another familiar Dead motif).
With Soft Walks, Turner and co. return to an old glassy-eyed sincerity. The pastoral arrangements and acoustic guitar-plucking have that old-time, back-porch feel, and the soul-shredding lyrics contain hidden messages and an inherent love of life that lies beyond the excesses of our modern world. Hopefully, the future will see more musicians going into hyper-stoned periods of self-awareness where they re-evaluate the folk traditions of yore and usher in a new era of American beauty. Soft Walks is a great start.