Rootsy singer-songwriter Seth Walker has been remarkably consistent with quality singing, songwriting, and — oh yeah — guitar playing through a trio of albums. All the while, he had adjusted of level of production applied to all of this. With his fourth long player Sky Still Blue, Walker finds perhaps the perfect match in producer Oliver Wood.
Wood was the man at the boards behind Blues queen Shemekia Copeland’s finest releases, including her crown jewel Never Going Back, and he knew how to get the best out of her. He casts Walker in his best possible light, too, this time using a bare approach that allows Walker’s voice and guitar deliver his own songs (five of which were written with Wood’s help) with never more accompaniment than what’s needed. Wood also let Walker operate in his comfort zone in using Walker’s longtime rhythm section of Steve Mackey (electric bass) and drummer Derrek Phillip, while supplementing them on select tunes with a few of his own people: Jano Rix (keyboards) and the Wood Brothers: Oliver himself on rhythm guitar and his brother Chris of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame on acoustic bass.
But like all the best producers, Wood doesn’t put his production ahead of the artist, and Walker remains at the center of focus at all times…and more so with Sky, that focus is on Walker’s guitar. He’ll dispatch a couple of verses during “Trouble (Don’t Want No)” in his facile, soulful delivery and then lets his sharp blues lead do the talking over what he calls a “razor groove.” His fealty to T-Bone Walker can be heard alongside Chris Wood’s standup bass during “Tomorrow” and his asides on the blues dirges “Either Way I Lose” and “Jesus (Make My Bed)” aren’t long but don’t need to be to make their presence known.
With the discreetly increased emphasis on guitar, Walker is savvy enough to know to dish out his tasty licks in bite-size portions and leave ’em wanting a little more. There’s plenty of good singing over good tunes to keep everyone satisfied, anyway.
Like, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” for instance. It’s got this gruff, muffled groove, framed around Walker’s well-formulated lyrics that flow out so naturally you can almost finish his sentences on the first listen. And yet, not clichéd. “Another Day” is a happy-go-lucky Sunday stroll given spark by Walker’s tasty plucking and a little vintage electric piano from Rix.
Walker must be getting acclimated with his new, New Orleans home environs because “All That I’m Askin'” has a loose, airy Big Easy beat made funky by Chris Wood’s acoustic bass and sporting a trumpet break from Ephraim Owens. Even with all these extra instruments, Oliver keeps it sounding lean. Doo-wop informs “For A Moment There” with the help of the McCrary Sisters on harmonies and the barrelhouse piano adds a nice touch. “Way Too Far” ends the whole thing with a cozy soul ballad that glows from having a taste of Tony Joe White in it.
Seth Walker was already a completely developed package as a singer-songwriter at the time of his 2007 self-titled debut. Sky Still Blue shows the benefits of his continual tweaking of his sound and it’s paid off in this completely solid album of roots music. Oliver Wood is doing quietly what T-Bone Burnett does with much fanfare.
Sky Still Blue drops on June 10, 2014 by way of The Royal Potato Family.