Ryley Walker’s musical persona inhabits the same woozy, smoky 3 am jazz club once patronised by the likes of John Martyn. The similarity is uncanny at times, notably on the breathtaking ‘Same Minds’ and the ‘Solid Air’ melancholy of ‘Sweet Satisfaction’, the former of which begins with the kind of sparse, off-kilter bass championed by Tom Waits around his ‘Small Change’ era, and the latter of whom changes tack at the end into a frenetic workout that is as thrilling as it is unexpected. It’s no great leap of faith, either, to picture Walker, hair cascading in the summer breeze, as a kind of messianic figure up on the main stage at Woodstock as the song builds, lost in the marijuana fog clouds and immersed in the splendour of the remarkable musical sparring team he has built around him.
The Chicagoan guitarist’s main reference points are self evident. Apart from the obvious influence of Martyn, Walker channels a less fey Nick Drake on ‘The High Road’, a composition in which he becomes, perhaps surprisingly, a dead ringer for James Yorkston in his delivery. Elsewhere, there are flourishes of the Buckley dynasty (more Tim than Jeff though, it should be noted), nods to ‘Astral Weeks’ period Van Morrison and the early solo work of Richard Thompson. There’s even a Pentangle-style instrumental in the form of ‘Griffiths Bucks Blues’, one of several tracks which, being a failed guitarist myself, made my fingers hurt just listening to it.
The songs here are far from a lazy pastiche of the idols of yesteryear though, for ‘Primrose Green’ is a big, brazen set that cocks its leg and marks its own lamp post with the most pungent of aromas. It ought to have anyone that hears it utterly enraptured from the very first moment. Indeed, so intense is the first half of the record that it comes as a relief when the cool and carefree whimsy of ‘On The Banks Of The Old Kishwaukee’ freshens the atmosphere with a more conventional West Coast country summer vibe. It’s a much needed diversion from an album steeped in raw emotion and as such it stands out as a clear highlight.
You will hear few full length releases this year with as much substance as ‘Primrose Green’. It’s a vital, vivid, veracious victory that will crush you like a boa constrictor until it releases you from its cheeky grasp and tickles your tummy instead. This is a true colossus of an album and if it doesn’t make your top ten of 2015 come New Year’s Eve, I have to question your sanity.