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Song You Need to Know: Ryley Walker, “Diggin’ a Ditch”

Indie guy previews his song-for-song cover of a lost Dave Matthews album

Ryley Walker, 2018

Ryley Walker, 2018

Evan Jenkins

Ryley Walker is a fluid guitar player whose songs rarely take you in any expected direction and a proud torch-bearer for the vaunted croon-through-your-beard school of indie-rock singer-songwriters. His very fine 2018 LP Deafman Glance is definitely worth your time, setting warmly abstruse mumblings to delicate avant-woodsy guitar magic, updating the Nineties experimentalism of David Grubbs, Jim O’Rourke and Smog’s Bill Callahan the way those guys modernized John Fahey, Sandy Bull and Michael Hurley for the post-Slint era.

Walker recently showed off his Deep Nineties erudition with a Spotify playlist called “van jams,” complete with songs by the likes of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Bailter Space and Gastr Del Sol, along with bedrock stuff like R.E.M. and Genesis. Tucked inside that venerable assemblage was a song by the Dave Mathews Band, a nod to Walker’s latest project, The Lillywhite Sessions (due out in November), a song-for-song interpretation of Matthews’ unfinished-but-widely bootlegged LP of the same name from around 2000. Walker was a DMB fan growing up in Rockford, Illinois, so this is a loving interpretation, with not a wink of parody intended. He keys into both the despondent tone and genre-melting style of Matthews’ music at the time, salvaging and reimagining a record he loves.

Walker just released a highlight from the album, his cover of “Diggin’ a Ditch.” In the original version it’s a slow, nimble jazz-rock-y ode to finding peace through quiet solitude that, like many Lillywhite Sessions tracks, eventually appeared on Matthews’ 2002 LP Busted Stuff. Walker coats it in waves of feedback, and turns it into a fun, fuzzy rocker a la Yo La Tengo or a less heavy Dinosaur Jr. In a sense, the results create a bridge across the college quad in 1996, as if jam-band loving neo-hippies and indie-rock kids had a lot more in common than they were ready to admit. It’s an observation history has definitely born out.

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