Ryley Walker Deafman Glance

[Dead Oceans; 2018]

Styles: progressive folk, jam band, smooth jazz
Others: Steely Dan, Jim O’Rourke, Pat Metheny

Ryley Walker seems keenly aware of his status as a young man’s dad-rocker. One glance through his Twitter page reveals the self-deprecating tour junkie hiding behind the melancholy folkie that he models as in his music, the first hint that perhaps the idea of being a long-haired, acoustic-guitar playing troubadour really doesn’t hold very much water anymore in 2018, even to those who have devoted themselves to the lifestyle. Walker belongs to a specific circle of 21st-century folk rockers like Steve Gunn, William Tyler, and Itasca who have staked their craft on carrying the early-70s Laurel Canyon torch into the present day, with some choosing to deconstruct the form and others focusing more on embellishing it with lush arrangements and vibrant colors. Most of Walker’s output has fallen into the latter camp, with his first two albums (2014’s All Kinds of You and 2015’s Primrose Green) scanning as faithful updates of Joni Mitchell-style folk that, while pretty, didn’t make much effort to break out of the realm of pastiche.

Interviews with Walker suggest that he’s since tried to shake off that nostalgic veneer (or at least recenter its focus). His 2016 album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung found the Chicago native digging a little more deeply into the 90s post-rock sounds of his hometown, channeling experimental easy-listening virtuosos like Jim O’Rourke and The Sea and Cake, but struggling to capture the naturally flowing energy of his previous albums. With Deafman Glance, however, he’s found the most organic balance of his various interests yet, leading his band of longtime collaborators through an electric, jazzy suite of songs that feels both intricate and effortless.

The folk music of Deafman Glance feels equally possessed by gnarled complexity and wide-open serenity. Walker and his band often lean into an urban, nocturnal shuffle, though ironically their rollicking riffs and smooth rhythms end up evoking rolling planes and distant clouds far more than crowded boulevards and flickering street lamps, as if Walker’s efforts toward a rediscovery of his city have actually made his dreams of the countryside even more vivid. Rarely is the album more rootsy than in the unfurling opener “In Castle Dome,” which drapes golden guitar tones over Walker’s husky, shambling voice, and introduces the bucolic flute work of Nate Lepine (a lovely recurring element throughout the album). While these more overtly folky moments do well to establish the scenery of Deafman Glance, the real substance of the album comes in the more twisting tracks like “Opposite Middle” and “Telluride Speed,” which flit between proggy electric folk and Steely Dan-worthy soft rock; on these songs, Walker and company harness their knotty arrangements to pull off a surprisingly easygoing feel, one that’s content to reproduce the pleasant sounds of rock music’s past without fetishizing or inflating it.

While these relaxed guitar workouts find Walker at his best, his gestures toward experimentalism don’t work quite as well. When Walker attempts a more overtly dissonant mode on “Accommodations,” it simply jars the calming mood of the rest of the album and actually feels more rudimentary and undeveloped compared to the band’s breezier moments. As uncomplicated as a track like the closing “Spoil With The Rest” may seem, its shimmering guitar melody and carefree momentum bring out the best qualities of Walker’s music, putting his dexterous fingerstyle to work toward something that feels evocative of the past without sacrificing its vital sense of energy. In this way, Walker is still ultimately a troubadour at heart, a keeper of old languages retelling us stories from years past, and Deafman Glance shows that he’s continuing to sharpen his tongue.

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