Wily Bo Walker
Tales of the Mescal Canyon Troubadours

4 out of 5 reels
4/5

When you write in a niche, like I do with the blues, it's easy to overanalyze albums, wondering if it's truly blues, blues-inspired, or rock-which-owes-everything-to-the-blues. Wily Bo Walker, the Scottish singer/songwriter, embraces lots of styles, including blues, on Tales of the Mescal Canyon Troubadours, his re-examination of his own catalog. His textured voice, which sounds like a European Louis Armstrong, has an inherent bluesiness, so even as he plays with surf rock and 70s funk, his songs have a palpable blues underpinning.

Walker's work is interesting in that he constantly revisits songs across albums, reworking and configuring them so they're recognizable, while also changing them. Walker frequently covers himself, finding new takes on solid songs. This iteration allows his sound to evolve, as he doesn't have to focus on creating new songs, so much as rethink existing ones. It's something he frequently does on albums, mixing new songs with alternative versions, but here, Walker is almost completely focused on his previous material, pushing his blues into other genres. Tales of the Mescal Canyon Troubadours is Walker's fun, alternative history of his work.

"Drive (Mescalito Mix)" is surf rock that bounces, classed-up with background singers. You don't expect vocals this raw on this kind of track, giving the tune a feeling of someone crashing a wedding and grabbing the mic from the band. Except in this case, the rambunctious crasher happens to have a voice that purrs with so much intensity, you can almost feel it in your chest. And because it's Walker, he's able to hang with the background singers, subtly softening his vocals so he's hitting all of the right notes. It's a dramatic change from the horn-driven version he has on 2015's Moon Over Indigo.

But just as Walker removes horns, he also adds them. "Who's Loving You Tonight," perhaps the album's only new song (it's hard to tell the way Walker mixes and matches), features horns from Danny Flam, Walker's frequent collaborator. Here Walker croons against Flam's horn arrangement, which are thoughtfully created and recorded, every individual horn identifiable, rather than a gumbo of anything with a mouthpiece. Walker again defers to the song, working in a slightly lower register and casting himself as a bluesy Frank Sinatra.

"Chattahoochee Coochee Man (Southern Slide)" might be the album's bluesiest number. The track is high energy, driven by slide guitar, horns, background vocals, and Walker's own strong vocals. His voice is laid back yet also focused and intense. The song has got a lot going on, but stops short of Las Vegas spectacle, instead reading as an artist pulling out all of the stops to wow their audience. The track, an Eric Quincy Tate cover, is so impeccably executed, it never flirts with cheesiness.

Some of Walker's previous work reads as more overtly blues, but this album is too much fun not to review. His vocals are in fine form, brilliantly navigating different song styles, making subtle adjustments, but always sounding like himself. Tales of the Mescal Canyon Troubadours might not be traditional American blues, but it's certainly very inspired by it.