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Ryley Walker - The Lillywhite Sessions Music Album Reviews

On what may seem like a readymade gag, the psych-folk favorite covers the lost Dave Matthews Band album in full. He convincingly connects his adolescent love to his adult explorations.

Ryley Walker’s music is a stormy, searching amalgam of proggy British folk, primitive guitar, free improv, and Chicago jazz-rock. He draws from a deep well of Serious Record influences, the stuff you discover once you’ve burned through the standard canon. But to get there, you’ve got to start somewhere, and for Walker, the journey began with a single “Two Step.” See, Walker wasn’t raised on Alan Bishop or the AACM; he came up a Dave Matthews fan, perhaps working out the changes to “Seek Up” in the space between bongloads. DMB’s musically omnivorous, improvisationally minded jazz-folk fusion put Walker on his own roundabout path. And on his second LP of 2018—a full-album reimagining of DMB’s largely lost turn-of-the-millennium album, The Lillywhite Sessions—he finds his way back to the source.

DMB’s The Lillywhite Sessions are almost certainly the most widely heard full-length bootleg of this century. In late 1999, Dave and company began working on a follow-up to 1998’s dense, daunting Before These Crowded Streets with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite. But the songs were depressed to the point of being maudlin, which made the air in the studio oppressive. Weeks stretched into months, and the frazzled band reached a detente: The label would fly Matthews to Los Angeles to meet with Jagged Little Pill producer Glen Ballard in hopes of reseting his system. The two went on a tear, writing and arranging an album’s worth of material in about 10 days. Those songs became Everyday, and the work with Lillywhite was unceremoniously abandoned.

But in March 2001, Craig Knapp, the lead singer of a DMB cover band, found himself with a copy of the scrapped Lillywhite work. The songs were a little rough, having come straight off the mixing board with a wonky left-right balance, scratch lyrics, and spaces begging to be filled. Still, Knapp had the new-old LP he never thought he’d hear from one of the United States’ biggest bands. Knapp and a buddy put the whole thing on Napster. There’s no telling how many people heard the sessions, but between DMB’s fiendishly bootlegging fanbase and the sudden ubiquity of CD burners and file-sharing services, it’s certainly in the millions. And for many, the unfinished album’s blue moods became the crowning achievement of Matthews as a songwriter. It is a suite of introspection and unease, a ruminative, whiskey-drowned set that found Matthews wading deeper into his obsession with mortality and melancholy.

Ryley Walker missed The Lillywhite Sessions the first time around; he’s a Stand Up guy. But he’s certainly aware of the long shadow the work cast over the DMB kingdom: The Lillywhite Sessions is the dark Dave record, the diehards’ favorite. These finer distinctions matter little in Walker’s generally Dave-agnostic circles, where the Dave Matthews Band aren’t much more than a punchline, an elevator-jazz ensemble fronted by the yowling human embodiment of a Coexist bumper sticker. But Walker still hears a kind of funhouse-mirror version of all the things he favors in his own music: the instrumental interplay, the tricky dynamics, the self-directed despondence.

Last January, Walker, bassist Andrew Scott Young, and drummer Ryan Jewell—erstwhile Dave fans, all–spent several days holed up in Chicago, working up a tribute to the entire Lillywhite Sessions. On its face, the idea is a pretty good gag: a prog-folk darling, burning off years of cred by warbling his way through “Grey Street.” But not so fast. On the subject of Dave Matthews, Ryley Walker is as serious as your life.

On these 12 interpretations, Walker and company offer a dozen wildly different approaches. Some flatter with imitation; others rearrange the songs’ DNA entirely. But no matter how far Walker strays from the source, he’s made every effort to stay true to the guiding ethos of the band that wrote these songs. He’s made a Dave Matthews tribute album weird enough for the experimental music set but reverent enough for the overprotective DMB fan wondering why this Pig-Pen-looking motherfucker’s got his grubby mitts all over their beloved “Big Eyed Fish.”

Opener “Busted Stuff” has all the serpentine guitars and pinprick rhythms of a Sea & Cake song, the ambling proto-heartbreak of the original now more tense and urgent. “Grey Street” doubles down on the melodrama, landing somewhere in the neighborhood of Xiu Xiu’s spin on “Fast Car.” “Diggin’ a Ditch” is revved-up and blown-out à la Experimental Jet Set-era Sonic Youth, while “Sweet Up and Down” is a stoned groove from the playbook of jazz-funk mainstays Medeski Martin & Wood. The playing here is sharp, intuitive, surprising; across these first four songs, Walker and company manage to sound like four completely different bands.

“JTR” gets going in an awful hurry, with saxophonist Nick Mazzarrella overblowing his way across the verses to get to the song’s downspouting chorus. But about a third in, everything stops, the tether to the original song suddenly cut. Walker and company blow the absolute back out of “JTR,” vibes, sax, bass, and chimes crawling and scraping their way to a spiraling free-jazz fracas. It’s here, in the disc’s most out-there moment, where Walker’s spin on The Lillywhite Sessions truly comes into its own. Walker’s not looking to give DMB some sudden appreciation among the avant-garde set; they are doing just fine without ’em, thanks. But he is seeking a kind of rapprochement between the music he loves now and the music that started him down this path. When he takes the last half of “JTR” way out beyond the bardo, he’s just stretching the DMB ethos—malleable songs, searching solos—to its logical endpoint.

Sometimes that simply means throwing a number against the wall and seeing what sticks. In the case of the divisive “Monkey Man,” he turns it into a swirling five-minute noise collage. With “Raven,” the band dig extra hard into the changes, highlighting the slippery rhythms. Walker’s locating the stray threads in these songs and yanking until they come apart at the seams.

For every upended expectation, there’s a “Grace is Gone,” the quietly wrenching Lillywhite highlight that Walker drapes with tracing paper. The plaintive original is one of the most out-and-out gorgeous moments across the entire DMB catalog, and Walker knows when to leave well enough alone. Much the same goes for the troubled groove of “Big Eyed Fish” and the soused spiritual epic, “Bartender.” While Walker’s Lillywhite Sessions often seem to favor the head over the heart, he goes for the core of these songs, reveling in Matthews’ bleary, brass-rail philosophizing.

Walker’s desire to do something novel with pretty much all of these songs occasionally distorts or otherwise dispenses with their emotional stakes, which could be a sticking point for curious DMB fans. These songs often don’t hit you in the gut the way the original sessions can, opting for a brain-over-body intent. But Walker’s spin on the Lillywhite material didn’t have to be faithful, or even reverent, to work: all it had to be was invested. He and his band have come to these songs with best intentions.

Walker’s Lillywhite isn’t going to make indie rock learn to love Dave Matthews any more than Dave Matthews fans are necessarily going to embrace this indoor-kid version of their illicitly acquired classic. That’s not the point. Walker’s idiosyncratic take is his way of reconnecting the celebrated, cerebral art-folkie he’s become with a past spent dodging beanbags and sucking down Natty Lights in an East Troy parking lot. If you hear a little bit of your own journey in there, hey, all the better. It’s like the man once said: “I will go in this way, and find my own way out.”


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