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Ryley Walker: The Lillywhite Sessions Review

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Those whose music tastes formed around the millennium might recall an uneasy relationship with the Dave Matthews Band in its commercial heyday. “Crash Into Me,” “Crush,” “Ants Marching” and even “Jimi Thing” (an underrated cut) played in the background as young adults got high, made out or road tripped for the first time, supplying a soft-core yet pleasurably weird soundtrack to these early life milestones. Around 2001, however, the ground shifted for fans when the band released Everyday, a blandly overproduced follow-up to critically acclaimed Before These Crowded Streets. 2001 also saw the release of garage-rock ur-texts White Blood Cells by White Stripes and This Is It by The Strokes, and all of a sudden, the presence of DMB in one’s CD wallet became a scarlet letter of uncoolness among budding music aficionados.

The Illinois guitar savant Ryley Walker admittedly shared this experience and aims to shift the ground once again with his newest record, The Lillywhite Sessions. The name refers to the “lost” DMB album—really a collection of rough demos—that Matthews recorded in 2000 with Steve Lillywhite, who produced Before These Crowded Streets as well as albums by Morrissey, Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads. Dwelling on personal topics like the death of Matthews’s uncle to alcoholism, the work was ultimately deemed too dark to release in its nascent form. (Some tracks, such as “Grey Street” and “Grace Is Gone,” were repurposed with a slicker sound for subsequent albums.) The demos, however, have enjoyed a cultish afterlife, passed around on fan sites and torrent channels. This apocryphal material has inspired scores of “what if” theories suggesting that, had DMB released The Lillywhite Sessions rather than Everyday, the band’s critical reputation would’ve been cemented rather than undermined.

Walker’s The Lillywhite Sessions serves as both an album and an argument: a thoughtfully constructed case that Dave Matthews Band was good, critics be damned, and that fans who flocked away from the group should feel no shame in looking backward and validating their love for the music. Working closely with fellow DMB stans Andrew Scott Young on bass and Ryan Jewell on drums, Walker spent a year arranging the tracks and four days recording them in early 2018. The result glides from facsimile to playful experimentation, the points of departure lying in tempo, tone, and instrumental touches that optimize the musicians’ unique strengths. Over five previous albums, Walker has demonstrated remarkable fluidity as a guitarist, paying homage to ‘70s British folk on 2015’s Primrose Green and exploring psychedelia and noise rock on Deafman Glance, released earlier this year. Jazz rhythms have often underpinned Walker’s songs, whether they’ve complemented acoustic finger-picking or stretched-out distortion. This catholic approach to arrangement made Walker a natural candidate for covering Dave.

Listening to opener “Busted Stuff,” one might initially think they’d pressed play on the wrong album, as Walker’s slightly nasally delivery and his collaborators’ effervescent rhythm section resemble DMB’s original to an uncanny degree. Walker, however, cuts two minutes from the demo, keeping the tempo brisk and allowing Jewell the leeway to pack each measure with dizzying amounts of cymbal taps while Young’s bass shuffles more prominently in the mix. The track pays homage to its source material while subtly one-upping it, drawing listeners into the album and foreshadowing the creative riffs to come.

“Grey Street” takes a completely different tack, dispensing with DMB’s plucky chord changes and the chorus’s uplifting crescendos that suggest hope even as Dave sings worrying lines like “And though it’s red blood bleeding from her now / It feels like cold blue ice in her heart.” Walker dulls the song’s contrast between uneasiness and pep, summoning cello, horns, and some disconcerting harmonics to produce an avant-garde tone piece that unravels like a symphonic soundtrack to the apocalypse. Other standouts include “Diggin’ a Ditch,” which kicks off with gut-punch percussion and J Mascis-style sawing on electric guitar. Walker’s knack for arranging, however, shines through in key moments of drawback and restraint. Rather than overdriving the guitars throughout, the song ends with some high-pitched slides that, if you’re listening on headphones, feel like a fritzed-out electric current were skittering laterally through your brain. Reverb also swells around horns and shakers on “Bartender,” lending that song a hypnotic soundscape that heightens the drama on one of The Lillywhite Sessions’ most beautiful compositions.

Walker gets a bit carried away at times, adding chimes, vibraphone, and showy guitar ostinatos on “Big Eyed Fish” that sound like boastful noodling rather than well-considered embellishments. “Monkey Man” can’t be saved (“That song sucks,” Walker told Stereogum), and Walker’s discordant interpretation becomes unlistenable at times. Elsewhere, playing songs straight down the middle fares better than Walker’s tendency toward excessive experimentation, as on “Grace Is Gone,” which could also be mistaken for Dave’s understated demo but with some lovely acoustic guitar work added.

Now that the original Lillywhite Sessions are available on YouTube and don’t need to be torrented on glitchy backchannel fan sites, it’s fair to question what a cover version contributes if the originals are freely available and, as Walker’s tribute proves, worth a listen on their own. Unlike Ryan Adams’s front-to-back cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, Walker’s Lillywhite Sessions does not represent a complete aesthetic reinvention of its source material and, in that sense, doesn’t quite stand on its own. At the same time, this latter album becomes a valuable companion piece, drawing latent possibilities out of Matthews’s compositions while spotlighting their best moments.

In the context of Walker’s own career, this project will likely prove to be a canny move, as The Lillywhite Sessions gifted him a safe framework—songs that were already written and beloved by many—within which he could push his considerable skills at arranging and guitar-playing to new levels of complexity. In a broader sense, the album might give solace to lapsed DMB fans, or indeed to anyone who’s abandoned the music of their youth because critical consensus deemed it lame. Either way, this labor of love represents an earnest conversation between a musical trailblazer and a young fan—an interplay of innovation and tribute that many music fans would likely endorse.

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