Ryley Walker and Tonstartssbandht with Lisa/Liza
doors at 7:30pm
$18 day of show
$2 off for SPACE members
Ryley Walker currently resides in New York City. But his latest LP is a Chicago record in spirit. The masterful Course In Fable, the songwriter’s fifth solo effort, draws from the deep well of that city’s fertile 1990s scene, when bands like Tortoise, The Sea and Cake and Gastr del Sol were reshaping the underground, mixing and matching indie rock, jazz, prog and beyond.
Walker spent his formative years in Chicago, absorbing those heady sounds and finding ways to make them his own. Even though he emerged at first in folk- rock troubadour mode, it makes sense that he’s arrived at this point; each LP has grown more intricate and assured, his influences distilling into something original and unusual. To put it simply: Course In Fable is Walker’s best record yet, full of active imagination and endless possibilities.
Last October, Ryley went straight to one of the primary architects of the Chicago sound to make the LP. John McEntire, Course In Fable’s producer/engineer/ mixer, can rightly be called a legend for his work with Tortoise, Stereolab, The Red Krayola, Jim O’Rourke and countless others over a prolific career that now spans more than three decades. Seeing his name in an album’s liners is pretty much a trademark of quality.
Another Windy City exile, McEntire is based on the west coast these days, working out of the Portland, OR studio he’s dubbed Soma West. On the seven songs here, he delivers the signature shimmering and pristine sonics he’s become known for over the years. But McEntire was also intimately involved with Course In Fable’s overall creative process. “I told him to take the mixes and have at it,” Walker says.
The result is a rich, immersive affair — a headphones record if ever there was one. Course In Fable’s songs are twisty, labyrinthine things, stuffed full of ideas (Walker half-jokingly calls it his “prog record”). But no matter how complex it gets, the album is never overwhelmingly busy. Wiry guitars melt into gorgeous string sections (arranged by Douglas Jenkins of the Portland Cello Project). Tricky time signatures abound but feel as natural as can be. Melodies open drift in unexpected directions but remain downright hummable. Like Walker’s beloved Genesis, the pop element is never too far from the surface even when shit gets weird. (And speaking of weird, Ryley says that in addition to Genesis, much of the album’s inspiration comes from “Australian extreme scooter riders on YouTube and balding gear heads on Craigslist.” Go figure.)
To help put together these various puzzle pieces, Ryley assembled a band made up of several longtime collaborators. Bill MacKay (another Chicago mainstay) and Walker have made two excellent instrumental duo records of interlocking guitars and warm give-and-take — a rapport very much in evidence throughout Course In Fable. The freakishly talented drummer Ryan Jewell has performed with Walker for years now in a variety of settings, from straight forward song-centric sets to blown-out improv extravaganzas. Bassist Andrew Scott Young (Tiger Hatchery, Health&Beauty) has logged many miles on tour with Walker; he and Jewell are frequently astonishing, a buoyant-but-always-locked-in rhythm section, able to navigate sometimes dizzying turnarounds with apparent ease. Listening to the interplay between Walker and these musicians and you might be fooled into thinking they’d spent a year road- testing Course In Fable’s songs. But it all came together relatively fast, thanks to demos, rehearsals and the kind of musical empathy that comes from years of playing together.
Beneath the wondrous interplay, you’ll find some of Walker’s most personal – if still typically cryptic — lyrics, hinting at some of the trials the songwriter has been dealing with in recent years. Balanced with necessary doses of dark humor and oddball poetry, Course In Fable feels most of all like a life-affirming record, fresh air in the lungs, sun on your skin. “Fuck me, I’m alive,” Ryley sings at one point, a moment of both disbelief and pure joy.
Walker has released his albums on a who’s-who of independent labels over the past decade — Tompkins Square, Dead Oceans, Thrill Jockey and Drag City among them. This time around, he’s doing it DIY-style, putting Course In Fable out on his own Husky Pants imprint. You’re in good hands. This is an album that sounds great (mastered by Greg Calbi), looks great (artwork by Jenny Nelson and design by Michael Vallera). It probably even smells great. Whether you’ve been onboard since the beginning or are new to the Ryley Walker universe, you’re in for a treat.
A few years ago, Bob Weir was telling a writer about his process, and how the notion of constantly becoming—of life being lived in a state of flux—doesn’t just apply to the ever-changing self, but to the things the self creates. Speaking of the song “Saint of Circumstance,” which he’d been playing live for 40 years, Weir said, “I’m just starting to scratch the surface of what I can do with that.” This idea of a song as a living, breathing thing, a liquid portrait that sloshes to the borders of whatever frame is fixed upon it, is at the center of Edwin and Andy White’s work as Tonstartssbandht. Through constant touring, the brothers’ songs both take shape and change shape, becoming something a little different every night as they explore the possibilities inherent within them. With time, attention, and intention, these songs—long, languid, full of open musical questions and temporary answers—become distinct objects, and the process begins again. On Petunia, the brothers’ 18th album and second for Mexican Summer, they bring us to the earliest moments of this process, showing off a barn full of hatchlings already decked with splendid plumage.
Where most Tonstartssbandht albums come together slowly over years, recorded on the fly whenever the Whites have a few spare moments on the road, Petunia was largely written and recorded in their home city of Orlando in 2020. Many of the tracks had been played live, but in extremely rough form (“skeletons of songs,” as Andy puts it), and hadn’t yet developed into any kind of mature stage. With plenty of time on their hands thanks to the lockdown, and no shows to play, Andy and Edwin decided to pack some flesh onto those skeletons and bring them to life on their own. Petunia is the first Tonstartssbandht album to be created in a sustained manner and in a consistent environment, written and recorded in a single place over a focused period of time.
As a result, Petunia feels like a unified aesthetic statement. Using little more than a 12-string guitar and a drum kit, Andy and Edwin weave together the gentle headiness of Laurel Canyon and the sweaty pacing of Cologne; like a gyroscope, its constant motion produces the illusion of stillness—and that stillness gives it a sense of intimacy and introspection, something that’s further illuminated by the new emphasis placed on the brothers’ vocals. Taking cues from The Zombies and the falsetto-feathered singing of ’70s funk and reggae, Andy and Edwin stitch their voices together so easily, and with such generosity, it’s virtually impossible to see the seams. And it allows the quiet wisdom of the lyrics—what Andy self-deprecatingly calls “generic broad platitudes that I still think resonate when I say them”—to slip in almost unnoticed, delivering their emotional truths while preparing a feather bed for you to collapse into. “All roads will lead to the heart of town, when you’ve been running too long,” he sings in the album’s opening moments. “Being at peace only slows you down, but you’ve been running so long now.” In “Smilehenge,” he packs his bags, sweeps up the apartment, and says goodbye to an old life and an old love. “How will it feel when you turn out the light?” he wonders.
That same sense—of waiting in liminal spaces, of wondering what exists on the other side of uncertainty, shimmers through single “What Has Happened.” With an arrangement lightly influenced by Talk Talk and a shaky guitar sounding like a sonar, Andy and Edwin perch at the edge of the self and stare out. “Honestly,” Andy sings, his voice breaking, “What has happened to me?” Opener “Pass Away” expands upwards on the back of Edwin’s maracas and tapped percussion, and once they’re firmly in the air, they fly freely, Andy’s guitar asking the questions while Edwin’s drumming keeps them moving forward.
If Petunia feels like a journey in the direction of peace, that, too, is a reflection of how it was made. The stability of the sessions, and the brothers’ easy communication, allowed them to sit with these songs and their performances. “It was very helpful and relieving knowing every day that even if I start to feel frustrated for a second, we had the option to say, ‘I’m working with one other person, he’s my oldest friend, and it’s no big deal to be like, “Let’s clock out today,”’” Andy says. “Sometimes we go in and you can tell it’s not going to work that day, and that’s fine,” Edwin adds. “We didn’t have a tight crunch for time. There was no rush. It’s like feeding cows grass—probably makes tastier meat.”
The album’s clarity is also a result of Andy and Edwin bringing in perspectives from outside of the White family. “It’s the first time we’ve ever brought someone else into the mixing stage,” Andy notes. While the album was recorded at the brothers’ home studio in Orlando between April and August of 2020, it was mixed by Joseph Santarpia and Roberto Pagano at The Idiot Room in San Francisco—“our old Florida buddies who have great ears,” as Andy puts it. With those ears attuned to the recordings, Petunia is brighter, punchier, and more direct than its predecessor, the direct result of Santarpia and Pagano’s confidence in the performances the album captures. “They were just there to help paint in the mixing,” Andy says, but “they’re so good at bringing up levels, leveling everything really well.”
Levels: Andy means the volume of the tracks and their balance, yes, but there’s that sense of stability again, of building on level ground, and what can happen when the artistic environment is stable, even while the world’s environment is anything but. As the Whites have long known, a song—like a person—is a constantly evolving thing, and a record is a photograph, a way to pause that motion, to examine an object at a single moment in its evolution. It’s a way of suggesting stability where it doesn’t actually exist. Petunia is not Tonstartssbandht’s definitive statement on these songs, because how could it be? But it is a portrait of Andy and Edwin White at home in Florida, an artfully staged landscape rich in detail, its winding passages and airy environment waiting to be explored.
Lisa/Liza is the recording project of Liza (pronounced Lisa) Victoria. A Maine based songwriter and guitarist. She has released three full length LPs to date, through Chicago based Orindal Records, those are Deserts of Youth, Momentary Glance, and 2020’s Shelter of A Song.
Liza’s dreamlike lyrics often return to thematic imagery of seasonal change, animals, nature as a source of reflection, and inspiration. Liza’s lyrics conjure vivid images of everyday beauty: a dog rolling in the grass on a nice day; walking down a darkened street to meet the sunrise; robins filling up a field.
Her songs are accompanied by experimental guitar instrumentals that pull inspiration from the likes of Michael Hurley, John Fahey, & Karen Dalton.