What is folk music without a weathered soul behind it?
Ryley Walker isn’t your typical folk singer. At least, he’s not much like your average American folkie. American folk singers lean on the more traditional, structurally rigid form of song, and “traditional” doesn’t describe Walker at all. If he belongs to a tradition, it is that of the pastoral British folk movement that produced the likes of Vashti Bunyan, The Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. This is what made Primrose Green such a revelation in 2015, when it seemed like this form of folk would fade away among the din of suspiciously well-tailored “urban rustic” groups banging out 4/4 pop songs on banjos and jugs. If Primrose Green was a formal introduction, then Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is an attempt at a holding pattern. Here, Walker aims to more strictly define what his sound is with results that are both brilliant and frustrating in turn.
Walker’s style of guitar-picking lends itself well to improvisation, and the way in which Golden Sings kicks off indicates that the album will be more improvisational than even Primrose Green was. “The Halfwit In Me” is slow to start; it gives the impression that one walked in on the band as they were warming up. Once it kicks off properly, though, it blooms into something of true beauty. Walker and his band play with bouncy effortlessness, his deadpan lyrics approaching the wry sarcasm of peak-era Steely Dan with more of a sense of urgency. Overall, the song is exhilarating, and it’s a clear attempt to set a tone for the rest of Golden Sings to follow. And it does…to an extent.
Throughout the rest of Golden Sings, Walker plays with different textures and emotions, a clear attempt at displaying a certain level of maturity. However, while Walker is a young man with an old soul, he can’t quite pull off some of these ideas convincingly. Thus, while Golden Sings has successful moments like the brooding “A Choir Apart” and the yearning, all-too-brief “I Will Ask You Twice,” it also has missteps like “Sullen Mind,” an unfocused, brooding dirge that takes too long to peter out without reaching a real logical conclusion. Of further concern is Walker’s voice: while he sings with a pleasant inflection, his vocals don’t leave a lasting impression. This becomes a problem on songs like “Sullen Mind” or the sprawling “Age Old Tale,” which call for a vocalist with a certain amount of power that Walker doesn’t possess.
When it’s good, though, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is great. Walker has a considerable amount of talent as a songwriter and a guitarist, and it’s great to see that he has a level of ambition about his music, even if that ambition exceeds what he’s capable of right now. While it’s not a masterpiece, Golden Sings is a considerable step forward for Walker with a few mini-masterpieces within its grooves. Someone with talent like this should be appreciated, even for their missteps. After all, what is folk music without a weathered soul behind it?