Some releases labeled “Americana” feature new artists drawing from conspicuously deep wells of influences. Other albums sound like they’re re-issues of archive material recently found in the vaults. Seth Walker’s Times Can Change falls into the latter category. While the singer and his songs may be new, the styles and presentations captured on this collection haven’t changed much in decades.
However, whatever Walker might have offered on his previous albums, Times Can Change isn’t really Americana. There’s no folksy bluegrass nor gritty Chicago or Memphis blues. It’s “roots” only in the sense that Walker is channeling some very old forms indeed. In particular, a mellow jazz trio or a quartet instrumentation support Walker’s smooth tenor vocals that are evocative of, say, a Jimmy Rushing or Joe Williams. Now, that’s going back a bit.
The players are Walker (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Steve Mackey (bass), Derrek Phillips (drums and percussion), and Kevin McKendree (organ and piano). From time to time, this ensemble veers from more or less straightforward jazz arrangements into pop R&B numbers with the ubiquitous McCrary Sisters providing backing vocals. (I’m starting to think these ladies appear on more contemporary roots records than all the hits The Andantes sang for Motown.)
For example, “Stronger Than You Need To Be” sounds like an old fashioned AM Stax soul single. It’s only missing a horn section and full drum kit. Likewise, “All This Love” is a ballad reminiscent of “I Shall Be Released” re-done as a Sam Cooke-like anthem.
More typically, however, Mackey’s stand-up bass grounds slowly pulsating songs like “In The Meantime.” His presence, along with Phillips’ spare use of percussion instruments ensures most tracks have a unity in tone and approach. Of course, Walker is the gent center-stage. His nods to the West Coast soft jazz of guitarist Wes Montgomery distinguish “Found Myself Lost” and “I’ve Got A Thing For You.” Even more traditional is “Something’s Come Over Me” with a melody straight out of the Great American Songbook. It features a languid trumpet solo and vibrato guitar strums. From the same mold, “What Now” is pure piano bar husky-voiced blues.
This isn’t to say the collection suffers from sameness throughout the 12 tracks. There’s the Caribbean-flavored “Wait A Minute” and a taste of New Orleans accordion in “Rosalie.” The finger-snapping “More Days Like This” seems like a tune many a contemporary crooner could add to their song list. Co-written with frequent collaborator Gary Nicholson, it’s built on a simple hope: “I could use more days like this.”
Walker’s Times Can Change isn’t an album that comes out at you from the speakers with power or electric energy. Rather, Walker gently invites you into the room to sit back, relax, and enjoy 45 pleasant minutes or so with him. It’s the sort of record Sinatra or Bennett used to do with small ensembles. The main difference is Walker isn’t quite in that league as a singer. Then again, those guys couldn’t play tasteful, intimate guitar like he does.