Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker - SpiderBeetleBee

by Kyle Kersey Rating:7 Release Date:2017-10-20
Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker - SpiderBeetleBee
Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker - SpiderBeetleBee

At this point, having a folk duo seems like an almost obligatory fixture for any halfway-populated city, if only because even my dysfunctional hometown of Tucson has one (a town who’s most notable contribution to the national stage was Linda Ronstadt). Ours is called Ryanhood, the musical teaming up of Ryan Green and Cameron Hood, well beloved for their local live performances and Boston charm (is there such a thing?). My friend John is a big fan of their music, so much so that he submitted a vocal clip to be used on their new album and found his name acknowledgements section of its liner notes. Personally, they lean a bit too far towards clean pop than folk (folky pop?), but then again, I’ve never been the opening act for American Authors or Jay Z so who am I to judge?

By contrast, Chicago has a storied history of popping out industry legends, like Muddy Waters, Kanye West, Wilco, Earth Wind & Fire, and...well...the band Chicago. It’s quite the impressive mix of styles and tastes, which was partly what drew me to the collaboration of Bill MacKay and Ryley Walker. Well, that and their virtuosic guitar playing they exhibit. Walker has been called a “revivalist” for this quality, the younger of the two men and a spitting image of the late British folk legend John Martyn. His most recent solo album, Golden Songs That Have Been Sung, sounded like the stepping stones to the next Van Morrison. Mackay’s work is harder to unearth, though he’s no secret to those Chicagoans “in the know”.

SpiderBeetleBee is really a continuation of their 2015 effort Land of Plenty, down to its penciled-in cover art. Both are instrumental albums and...oh shit, it’s an instrumental album? Damnit. I need to do a quick Google search to get enough single syllable synonyms for the whole review. Let’s see, synonyms for the word tranquil: peaceful, calm, calming, still, serene, placid, restful, quiet, relaxing, undisturbed, limpid, pacific; slow-moving, sleepy. Serene. I like that one. We’ll start with that.

It’s difficult to truly analyze an album with no lyrical content (props to Ljubinko Zivkovic doing a better job of it than I ever could on the latest Kamasi Washington EP), especially one that’s so minimalistic with its use of instrumentation. In fact, SpiderBeetleBee is less of an album and more of a recorded performance, similar to those acoustic guitarists that occupy the patios of downtown bars and coffee shops. You can tell much of it was recorded in long takes because each little imperfection is unedited and on display, though I tend to agree with the Jack White approach that imperfections humanize music.

With the exception of some timely underlying cello and viola (and the fitting slap percussion on “I Heard Them Singing”), the two men’s guitars are the only instruments to grace the album, though that isn’t necessarily a negative quality as MacKay and Walker clearly know how to wield their instruments of choice effectively. While Walker continues his love affair with British-centric folk music, MacKay adds in flairs of jazz and blues. “The Grand Old Trout” starts with harmonics before leading to graceful fingerpicked arpeggios, a description that fits almost all of the album’s 8 tracks, each with a clear sense of intricacy and classical appreciation.

“Pretty Weeds Revisited” and “I Heard Them Singing” sound optimistic, as though they’re beginning some grand adventure into the world, a Hobbit-like theme if there ever was one. Closing with “Dragonfly”, the duo fully embraces a sense of mysticism, keeping with the British folklore. In fact, SpiderBeetleBee would fit in comfortably in the Shire. It’s played a bit safe, perhaps a bit too safe. Sure, it’s very pleasant ear candy, something relaxing to crank out some homework too without getting distracted, but it doesn’t exactly stand up as essential listening.

For all SpiderBeetleBee’s wonderful guitarwork, it lacks the contextual songwriting of other great instrumental albums, such as More Skin with Milk Mouth by Giraffes? Giraffes! or The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky. To be fair, MacKay and Walker never claim to be shooting for those grand ambitions, and the album is a joyful listen. It’d just be better completed. As with Ryanhood, I’ll have to see them live.

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