Ever since Ryley Walker moved to New York, his albums have sounded unmistakably like Chicago. Walker called the Windy City home for years, eagerly subsuming many corners of its music scene into his own creative DNA. Yet despite the band of Chicago jazz musicians he recorded it with, if Walker’s 2015 breakthrough Primrose Green sounded like anywhere in the world, it was the British Isles. That album’s 1960s-vintage English folk stylings began to morph on his 2016 follow-up Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, incorporating more of the jazzy post-rock that has been a Chicago staple since the ’90s. By the time he moved to Brooklyn and dropped Deafman Glance in 2018, Walker was openly attempting to evoke the sensations of the city he had just left behind, chasing after “the sound of walking home late at night through Chicago in the middle of winter and being half-creeped out, scared someone’s going to punch you in the back of the head, and half in the most tranquil state you’ve been in all day, enjoying the quiet and this faint wind, and buses going by on all-night routes.”
Like key inspiration Jim O’Rourke, Walker is far too adventurous a musician to be locked into one mode. He continues to explore a purer folk idiom on releases like 2019’s Little Common Twist with Charles Rumback. In 2020 he released far-out experimental improv records with Kendra Amalie and the team of J.R. Bohannon and Ben Greenberg. Less than two months ago he dropped Deep Fried Grandeur, a live recording of his band’s onstage collaboration with Japanese psych kings Kikagaku Moyo. Yet on the new Course In Fable, his first self-described “indie rock” album in three years, he continues to refine that eclectic Chicago sound he’s been edging toward all these years. This time he even got a member of Tortoise to produce.
For Course In Fable, Walker convened his longtime collaborators Bill MacKay, Andrew Scott Young, and Ryan Jewell at Soma Sound, the Portland outpost of former Tortoise percussionist John McEntire. Alongside the likes of Gastr Del Sol and the Sea And Cake, McEntire’s band helped to define the heady, exploratory sound Walker has been channeling in recent years. The musicians in that ’90s Chicago scene merged jazz, dub, krautrock, avant-garde classical, and all sorts of ultra-hip record-nerd genres into music that embodied their city’s placid lakefront views and trains clattering overhead. It was known as post-rock, but it was far removed from the widescreen drama of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions In The Sky. Seemingly prioritizing brain over heart, this music threatened to devolve into an academic exercise if not performed with breathless curiosity and whimsy. Fortunately, as anyone who follows Walker on Twitter knows, the man does not lack for whimsy, and his musical appetite extends far beyond the stodgy and respectable. Last week alone he big-upped Stone Temple Pilots, Akon, and Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti.
Even though he comes across differently on record than he does online, Walker is increasingly finding ways to keep his serious-artiste endeavors surprising and fun. Lyrically he’s oblique but engaging, sprinkling his songs with detritus from suburban Evangelical youth and a grownup life spent perpetually on tour. Amidst the references to menthol lights and burnouts in parking lots on opener “Striking Down Your Big Premiere,” he professes, “I love the smell of jet bridge fumes/ Before I board with the few/ Group D vagabonds and their pimps.” Elsewhere he quips, “Heard the cross that you hung on had cable,” and, “I declare a happy birthday to every mouth full of shit,” casually doling out burns en route to the next surreal flourish. There’s so much to plumb out from this scene in lead single “Rang Dizzy”: “As the cherry water runs down my spine/ I recall coupon codes from minimum wage jobs/ Unionized by labor kept in sheep skin/ Saving up for tires that light up when you drive them.”
The real draw here is the music, though. On Course In Fable, Walker and his bandmates often sound like a proggy jazz orchestra veering in and out of musical lanes. Sometimes they drift along at unhurried paces; other times they rip through flurries of notes at an urgent pace. No song sits still in one place for long. String arrangements from Douglas Jenkins of Portland Cello Project lend a mournful grace to the proceedings — his contribution to closing track “Shiva With Dustpan” is especially beautiful — while McEntire’s keyboards, synths, and vibraphone help steer the more pastoral moments back toward the city skyline. “Clad With Bunk” spends most of its runtime floating in jazz-folk suspended animation, and then a Southern-fried boogie breaks out. After six and a half minutes of divebombing-bumblebee guitar heroics, “A Lenticular Slap” exhales into easygoing beachfront fare, talkbox included.
It’s fun to imagine the inspirations for all the fascinating detours along the way, be it lead guitar near the end of “Rang Dizzy” that calls back to Walker favorites …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead or the languid, noodly soft-rock vibe that makes “Axis Bent” feel like the Jicks circa Pig Lib. You can hear his longstanding devotion to Genesis in the album’s toggling, morphing song structures, and his bleary baritone continues to resemble Tim Buckley and John Martyn. Looming largest of all is O’Rourke, one of the brightest lights of that old Chicago community — particularly that era when he was applying his ear for the avant-garde to classic rock, pop, and folk sounds, first on solo albums and then in close partnership with Wilco and Sonic Youth. Eureka, Insignificance, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Murray Street, Loose Fur, Sonic Nurse, A Ghost Is Born: It was a breathtaking stretch, and it clearly made an impression on Walker.
Still, no one artist or scene can sum up Course In Fable. It’s an album that could only have been made by Ryley Walker, one that refracts his passions and quirks at captivating new angles. This is his first big statement album since getting sober two years ago, and it accordingly moves with an energy and clarity his previous albums only hinted at. It feels less like a culmination of Walker’s creative journey than an entryway into an exciting future, one where his voracious listening habits and impressive chops might lead him toward further epiphanies. As much as it might owe to his old stomping grounds, like the man himself, Walker’s music is venturing beyond the legacy of his Chicago heroes toward exciting new horizons all his own.
Course In Fable is out 4/2 on Husky Pants Records. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s G_d’s Pee At State’s End!
• Flock Of Dimes’ Head Of Roses.
• Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg.
• Former the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart leader Kip Berman’s first solo album as the Natvral, Tethers.
• Lil Tjay’s Destined 2 Win.
• Demi Lovato’s Dancing With The Devil… The Art Of Starting Over.
• Alan Vega’s posthumous Mutator.
• Major Murphy’s Access.
• Moontype’s Bodies Of Water.
• Bryce Dessner & the Australian String Quartet’s Impermanence/Disintegration.
• Hit Like A Girl’s Heart Racer.
• al Riggs’ I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep.