Joshua Ray Walker “What Is It Even?”

Soundly Music, 2023

A lively reimagining of some unexpected tunes that may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but showcases a fresh new side to Walker.

With his first three albums, Joshua Ray Walker set himself out to be the kind of fantastic Americana artist that will regularly grace the pages of AUK for many years to come – it is somewhat surprising then, that for his fourth album he decided to dedicate it solely to covers. I’m sure your next thoughts are that the songs he has covered must surely be traditional country or at least from the great American songbook, but no: these tracks are by and large contemporary pop songs. Walker’s reasoning for this choice? Well, he just “wanted to make something that was fun”, and let’s face it, what sounds more fun than taking Cher’s ‘Believe’ and giving it a twanging classic country spin?

‘What Is It Even?’ opens with a showstopping version of Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’, with Walker more than holding his own when it comes to replicating the bombastic nature of her powerful vocals, albeit with an added yodel that’s distinctly all his own. The Cranberries’ 1993 ‘Linger’, with its theme of painful love, takes on a slightly more upbeat tone and while Walker’s voice is no match for Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s, his tone adds something altogether more playful to the feel of the lyrics.

Even compared with Whitney Houston’s original, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ moves at a rip roaring pace that just made for well, dancing. Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ – a 2015 hit so ubiquitous it was impossible to miss even by those who don’t consider themselves top 40 listeners – gets stripped of its tropical dance-pop, replaced with some surprisingly effective Spanish guitar and jangling percussion that makes it feel like it would be right at home in a spaghetti Western.

With Dolly Parton’s ‘Joshua’ and Bill Mack’s ‘Blue’ – released by Mack in 1958 but far better known from its 1997 iteration by LeAnn Rimes – Walker is much more in his wheelhouse, not having to do a lot to either track for them to fit him easily – although the slight roughening up of ‘Joshua’ alludes to the songs darker undertones and it’s refreshing that Walker didn’t change the pronouns. ‘Goodbye Horses’ by Q Lazzarus feels like an inspired choice, Walker’s voice and the good old twang of a guitar adding an earthiness and reliability that’s missing from the 1988 original as it drips with its of the era synth-pop.

Beyoncé herself stepped into the country arena with ‘Daddy Lessons’, and Walker’s bluegrass cover of ‘Halo’ is so good we can only hope she hears it and perhaps replicates it herself. ‘Samson’ by Regina Spektor is the most indie of all Walker’s choices for the album, and the slight wobble in Walker’s voice as he reaches for the highest notes adds a sweet vulnerability absent from Spektor’s own recording.

This is not to say every track is a win, however: Walker’s cover of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ loses some of the gravitas of the iconic version recorded by Sinead O’Connor, his voice never quite managing to imbue the words with effortless emotion in the way she did.

Is this an album that will help cement his growing cult status in the Americana world? Maybe not, but it will certainly set him apart from some of his contemporaries too afraid to show their whimsical side. Plus, you know what? It really is a heck of a lot of fun.


About Helen Jones 135 Articles
North West based lover of country and Americana.
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Starting his UK tour shortly.