Heard Lately

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Heard Lately #23: Wily Bo Walker Nails Old-School Modernism

Haiku of contrition:

Walker and Brayshaw. A time-traveling duo? Or just cool music?

Artist: Wily Bo Walker and E D Brayshaw
Album: The Roads We Ride
Release date: March 15, 2019

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The deal. My wife is a huge Bob Dylan fan so I’ve come to appreciate Dylan and his music. And his voice. It’s easy to rag on his singing, because it’s different, but as you hear more and more of his work (and at this point, I’ve heard a lot), you come to appreciate its distinctiveness. It’s not about hitting notes or sounding pretty. Instead, the attraction is Dylan’s naturalness. His voice is his voice and he does nothing to alter it. Singer Wily Bo Walker is a similarly distinctive singer, his rasp equal parts Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Together, with his brilliant collaborator E D Brayshaw, who handles all of the album’s instrumentation, the two create their own unique sound that’s also its own world on The Roads We Ride.

Walker and Brayshaw have been working on this double concept album for a for a while. As a result, quite a few of these songs were released on Walker’s 2018 Almost Transparent Blues, also made with Brayshaw. I was confused enough about the chronology of the music that I reached out to Walker, who explained that his label wanted Almost Transparent to be an introduction to the American market. As a result, they threw on some of the songs from then-unreleased Roads, as a sort-of sneak preview. The advantage to working with great songs is you don’t mind hearing them again.

Walker tends to be the focal point of the music, because (1) he’s the singer and (2) he wrote most of Roads’ songs. But the album is a true collaboration, with Brayshaw’s guitar playing a prominent role on the record. The guitar is upfront, which makes it easier to miss any of the hundreds of more subtle music moves made across the 13 tracks. For instance, “September Red” is practically religious, with the service co-led by Brayshaw’s guitar, but also by some of his downright lovely piano playing. Walker, who doesn’t have a conventionally pretty voice, is similarly beautiful-sounding with an expansive vocal performance that has the naturalness of a leaf floating along a lazy current of wind. Brayshaw finds another gear for the song with a solo that channels Slash meeting David Gilmour at an after-hours club.

While “September Red” rocks hard as a power ballad, “Running Wild,” the lead track off of disc two, is almost metal, with a sturdy groove that hints at danger, a poppy chorus, and lots of screaming guitars. It’s very 1980s, in the best possible way. “After the Storm” features similarly soaring guitar work, that like all of the guitar on the album, is flashy but also soulful. What makes the tracks work is how Walker’s voice handles the low-end, melody, and texture, while Brayshaw operates within the upper register using counter-melodies. Walker and Brayshaw fit together perfectly, like the opposite of Ikea furniture pieces.

Straight talk. I’m on the record as not loving concept albums. But the concept here isn’t overworked. It’s a collection of wonderful songs that happen to live around a unifying idea. And Walker does an effective job demonstrating the concept. The physical package includes illustrations and character descriptions, making the entire work feel old fashioned and analog, like back in the days when you would pore over a CD insert or vinyl (but don’t worry: Walker also has a healthy Bandcamp presence). That throwback feeling extends to the songs, which are intelligent without being off-puttingly clever.

The confession. I’m fairly certain I got this in the mail well after it had been out for a while. It would have been nice to close this off in 2019, but it represents a great way to start 2020.

Closing arguments. I keep coming back to ideas like ‘old school’ to describe Roads We Ride. And it makes sense. I don’t hear enough contemporary artists like Walker and Brayshaw — people with loads of talent who don’t feel the need to bludgeon the listener with their abilities. I also don’t hear enough contemporary artists who are comfortable expressing themselves as they are, rather than as what market research tells them they should be. Dylan didn’t invent the concept of swimming against the popular tide, but he certainly personifies it. But this isn’t about Dylan. It’s about a modern album with the sensibility of another time. Which is what makes it feel so alive.

The pile

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So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.

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