Mastered by Michael Romanowski
The Amazing Beautiful Bio by Rachel Swan (East Bay Express), 2010
Tenacity is a virtue, and so is imagination. Singer-songwriter Alex Walsh has both qualities in spades. Born in the Bronx, he grew up throughout the US, attending four different high schools and soaking up influences from a variety of milieus. Walsh taught himself to play guitar and harmonica as a teen, became an omnivorous consumer of rock, blues, and folk music, and eventually formed bands of his own. He’s currently a stalwart in the Bay Area acoustic scene with four albums in his oeuvre, including this year’s intelligent good-times romp, The Amazing Beautiful.
An abortive career in playwriting led him to form his first duo, The Young Blue Bucks, at age twenty-two. Walsh combined forces with drummer David Schaldach and the two formed a group that mixed percussion, guitar, and harmonica. Walsh was, in essence, a one-man-band, and Schaldach was “a really tall guy with a miniature drum kit.” It worked. The Young Blue Bucks were part of a music scene that had its genesis at Owl & Monkey Café. They released two cassettes and spent two months busking in Paris and Barcelona.
When Walsh returned to San Francisco in 1992, he decided to focus exclusively on music. The nineties were his dues-paying years. He rented a walk-in closet for $130 a month and busked for a living. “I really cut my teeth on that,” Walsh later recalled. He formed a new trio, gigged at reputable local venues — including The Fillmore Lounge— and completed a Bachelor’s degree in music and performing arts at New College of California. This period culminated with the release of Walsh’s 2003 full-length debut, Light Another Candle.
Walsh’s music provides an interesting parallel to his life story. Light Another Candle came on the heels of several lo-fi demo recordings, all of which favored sparseness and substance over musical adornments. The album’s songs hover on three-chord riffs, and vocals that modulate in the bass and tenor registers. Walsh amassed a fairly large arsenal for the project, with organ by Michael Slaughter, cello by Gretchen Elliott, and violin by well-known jazzman Jeremy Cohen. Kurt Ribak holds down bass duties on most tracks. Some songs, like “I Can See You Anywhere” and “Liquid Feeling” are robust and densely orchestrated — the latter tune poaches influences from Indian music and world fusion. But Walsh also operates well in a more Spartan setting. On the singularly beautiful tune “You’ll Come Back to Me,” he gets back to the basics.
Light Another Candle helped Walsh consolidate his career, and paved the way for his 2006 sophomore effort, Take Me Back to the Country. Named for a song that Walsh played at the Million Worker March protest in D.C., Take Me Back is Walsh’s most deliberately straight-forward rock album.
Walsh followed up in 2008 with This Is What I Heard, an album largely inspired by Walsh’s 2003 conversion to Buddhism. It’s his most challenging work to date, given the subject matter, but it also shows his willingness to cover unusual material. Sparer than Light but more sophisticated, in terms of its chord changes, this album links Walsh’s folk sensibility to his current religiosity. “On the Sea of Suffering” pairs rock riffs with driving hand drum. Blues song “Eternity” incorporates the Buddhist chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo as a backdrop. Framed as a concept album, This Is What I Heard also marks Walsh’s first experiments with reverb and hip-hop-style backbeats.
This year Walsh followed up with The Amazing Beautiful, an album that returns to his folksy roots. Hookier than previous efforts, it shows the importance of working hard at one’s craft and having a considered approach. Walsh shows off his vocal chops, singing in a rubberband twang — he currently cites Beatles singer Paul McCartney as a major influence. He ditches the big orchestra for a simple guitar and harmonica. And he exercises a healthy sense of self-irony, singing about unemployment, rebound relationships, benders, mortality, and insomnia. Walsh’s light-hearted ruminations and vivid imagery make this album particularly engaging. For a singer with obvious longevity in the folk world, it’s an auspicious new beginning.