Ryley Walker’s New Record Reminds Us That There’s Still Humanity in Music

Zach Rogue (Rogue Wave) talks Golden Sings That Have Been Sung and RE-humanization of music.

Brian Eno recently commented on the darker side of modern recording techniques, pointing out that “the temptation of the technology is to smooth everything out,” to correct any perceived mistakes “until every bar sounds the same…until there’s no evidence of human life at all in there.” Consider the radio dial of 2016. Most pop, rock and a lot of indie music is a computer manipulation.

The audio form of Photoshop.


Contemporary popular music is not meant to impose or challenge. As the public still withers in the wake of the Telecommuncations Act of 1996, it is not hard to see why. Corporate media consolidation has given way to unprecedented control over the music business. Simply put, subversion is bad for big business. And this had led to musical malaise amongst the listening public. When even an indie musician acts erratically at, say, a music festival, or refuses to bend to the will of modern passivity, the modern artist is often chastised for being, well, an artist. How can music provoke in the modern age of computer music? What is music supposed to even do anymore?

Can it still transport? Can it still feel spontaneous?

Are there still records that sound timeless? Or, perhaps, more accurately, out of time?

I know a little about Ryley Walker. I know his second record, from 2015, Primrose Green. I listened to it quite a few times. I could tell he was most likely wise beyond his years. His singing voice has a sort of old soul quality to it, his guitar playing, quietly acrobatic. I could tell he was capable of moving his music in a lot of directions, possibly treating each new record like an empty page.

He went back to Chicago to track his new record, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, with one of his mentors, LeRoy Bach (Wilco, etc.) who, along with some other influential members of Tortoise and Gastr del Sol, helped shape Ryley’s musical sensibilities when he was first coming up in the scene as a precocious teenager back in 2009. Bach used to host an improv night that Ryley frequented, getting a chance to perform with and talk to the heavy, established musicians he greatly admired. Ryley wanted to return home to where it all started for him.

The only way to really hear Golden Sings is to submit to it.

Golden Sings That Have Been Sung has a bewildering quality to it, and the closest cognate I can locate is Van Morrison’s 1968 album Astral Weeks. Not in the arrangements, but in spirit (both are records I had no ability to understand upon the first few listens) and the total abandon with which it flows. The only way to really hear Golden Sings is to submit to it, to allow yourself to put down the fucking phone and just let yourself drift down the stream and accept that it won’t always make sense. It will meander, beguile, undulate. This record is not bathed in compressed drums or cavernous reverb or psychedelic tape delay or cascading layers of multi-tracking or modulated analog synthesizers, all hallmarks of experimental indie rock music. This is real musicians making real noises, ignoring contemporary song structure, ignoring limits, ignoring…click tracks… Letting the mood last as long as nature wants it to, letting feelings explode.

Ryley’s acoustic guitar playing is as spritely as John Fahey’s, but is never overwrought. He is just another musician in the room with everyone else. This is a collective sound. These are sensitive players listening to each other and reacting to each other. It’s a flavor of rock music that could be heard, or at least contained under the roof of a hazy jazz club, at 2 a.m.

The human mind can (when not digitally distracted) go from a tempered brook to a blasting waterfall, like the buildup in “Sullen Mind.” As Ryley quietly bellows, “I only have a Christian education,” he seems to realize along with us that there is no preparing for life. It is simply to be endured. As the band blasts off like a tempest and rejoins back into the last chorus, the artist reaches for the answer that is always elusive, always mutating.

The record turns both tender and playful in the brief “I Will Ask You Twice” with a lyrical opening that could have been easily written by Father John Misty (“Played footsie with Jesus/Man, what a weak touch”) or even Tim Harden. As he literally, with a wink, asks to marry his lover twice, the song quietly ends, extinguished like a bemused and wandering thought. Like a hand brushing a dandelion as it disintegrates into the wind.

Ryley Walker is swimming in heavy waters.

The centerpiece of the LP is “The Roundabout,” as it begins with that cousin to the acoustic guitar riff of “Over the Hills and Far Away.” The song feels like it could accompany a montage of Ryley waving goodbye to his youth. The places he went. Where he felt hurt. Where he felt free. Where he felt bored, excited. We cannot predict or control the limits of our own nostalgia, as Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical series My Struggle examines — the emotions we imprint upon the objects in our youth.

The last track, “Age Old Tale,” is a fitting soft punctuation mark on all that makes this record so dreamlike, as he quips, “I can still smile with the taste of Zig Zag.” The song has no intention of reaching a destination; it never builds to a climax, never moves past its initial push off the dock. It just keeps churning in that slow, nasty groove.

To be sure, Ryley Walker is swimming in heavy waters. He can be a qualitative reminder to Brian Eno that there are still those out there who not only avoid the tendency to dehumanize music, but perhaps forget that era ever existed.

Over the decade and a half that Rogue Wave has made music, Zach Rogue has continued to expand his band’s emotional spectrum. Drawing inspiration from the inevitable delusions of everyday American life, Rogue, his longtime bandmate Pat Spurgeon, and their fellow members have returned reinvigorated with their 2016 record Delusions of Grand Fur, and with a fresh sound founded on the art of patience, the fearlessness of experimenting, and the unbridled joy of creating something meaningful to help us navigate through these vacant times.

(Photo credit: Andrew Paynter)