Ryley Walker — The Lillywhite Sessions (Dead Oceans)
I wasn’t really a Dave-hater, either. At least not in his first incarnation: early exposures were of a Dad music nature, being driven around in pre-license days, as well as endless reruns of his pajama’ed performance on SNL. So if anything my relationship with the Dave Matthews band started out more or less neutral, “Ants Marching” violin earworms notwithstanding.
As a drumming wannabe I could jock Carter Beauford’s polyrhythms early on (I specifically recall a heated debate with a friend who claimed Lars Ulrich was a better drummer), so there were always elements I could get down with.
But there were also elements that interrupted the vibe: “Crash,” for instance, trying to over-sublimate the already-there vibe with those heavy-handed wind chimes that come in during the chorus, which make you feel like I’m at my guidance counselor’s office fiddling with a Rubik’s cube to the scent a Yankee candle.
And speaking of high school references: the overexposure therein for the pejorative turn of DMB, in my brain’s experience. Too many thick hemp necklaces on the too many douchey suburbanites surrounded with that made up that scene in my town—this omnipresence sowed the seeds of sour feelings. Too much, indeed.
But what really turned me anti-Dave had to be the poppy garbage that came in place of the scrapped album covered here in full. If the single “Everyday” was simply inane and annoying, “The Space Between” was DMB’s worst frittering away of the band’s talents toward cloying Colplayish ends.
Cue Ryley Walker, whose range on vocals and guitar is essentially matched by his self-deprecating and bullshit-detecting persona (tagged as ‘experimental music’s merry prankster’ in a Noisey profile ahead of Deafman Glance’s release this past spring).When Walker announced plans to record a full album cover of Dave Matthews’ aborted recording sessions with their early-album producer Steve Lillywhite—AKA the album DMB would have made if the label didn’t force him to shelve the sessions in progress, switch producers, and record the Everyday inferiority—it seemed appropriate insofar as a typical Twitter musings, i.e. a good joke that is next-day forgotten.
When it turned out to be a legitimate project, all the better, as the sensibilities of Ryley Walker and his crack team of musicians are the perfect sort to put these Dave Matthews songs back on the mantle; and in the midst of a period of critical DMB reappraisal, to reconsider the album that should have been, with these strong set of dedicated covers that very much are.
Jump into side B, and things start to get heady in a way it is difficult for me to imagine Dave Matthews himself pursuing. After the relatively poppy, DMB normative first section of “JTR,” the midsection dissolves into sax and xylophone and Blue Note workouts, putting out any of the pop-leanings of Dave’s re-recorded versions. This bizarre breakdown in particular hits in an unexpected but welcome way, rather like Can’s lengthy “Soup” off Ege Bamyasi, which takes its riff-heavy center that most dudes who dig Zep could at least nod to, and promptly punctures it with an acid-freaked keyboard sermon. As with “Soup,” regardless of the motive of this form, the function of “JTR” separates those who’d take minimal purview of background listener from those willing to accept the strange brew as revelation.
Can was not a band whose likeness I expected to come to the surface going in, but they popped up again via the weirdo echo experiments of “Monkey Man” on side D. In between the out-there experiments, Walker also works in two most beautiful of the covers presented here.
“Grace is Gone” is a fucking sublime construction in every capacity, its melody and words dripping with remorse that’s tender and heartfelt. If Dave had indeed pivoted toward these “sad bastard songs,” as he called these drinking ballads in 2001, I’d’ve pivoted toward Dave. The outtro, reminiscent with its Fahey-esque guitars and mallets of Jim O’Rourke’s 1998 album Bad Timing, drives the vibe of the song home, as the instrumentation is the perfect complement down to the goddamned triangle.
As far as delivering said content, I can’t imagine the originals being better—Ryley Walker’s got a fucking gorgeous voice throughout The Lillywhite Sessions (and this year’s earlier triumph Dearfman Glance); and there’s no better presentation than this pair of tracks and their supportive accompaniment. “Captain” also has a backing that keeps to a subtle guitar tremolo and rhythm/mallets, until the space between (heh) choruses gives room for another overwhelming burst of instrumental anxiety. “Bartender” is one of the few
The tasteful production builds throughout, and by the last two songs, an homage to other, localized influences, come to the fore. The fingerpicked guitars, dextrous rhythmic powerhouse of bass and brushed drums, and melodic mallet support of “Kit Kat Jam” call to mind elements once again of Jim O’Rourke’s solo records, along with John McEntire’s dry and spacious Tortoise recording methods, and the varied jazzy, experimental, post-rock vibes that used to permeate Drag City and Thrill Jockey when they were the de facto pulse of 90s Chicago.
The toe-curlingly discordant guitar harmonies at the end of “Kit Kat Jam” that lead into urgent closer “Raven,” burning all the way through and stopping the momentum of the double lp on a dime. Instead of jumping immediately to the source material, the suspense of the cliffhanger-feel end has me flipping to the A-side for another listen and repeat.
So what originally seemed like a piss-take befitting Ryley Walker’s endlessly amusing Twitter persona turns out to be one of the most sincere offerings this year.
“Grace is Gone,” “Captain,” and "Raven" are among the standouts. The Lillywhite Sessions starts strong and finishes stronger; a listen in full for the sweep of the record as it builds is a requisite.