Billy Wylder’s new album 'Trying To Get Free' embraces a stirring global beat

Billy Wylder’s “Trying To Get Free” is out August 25. (Courtesy Olivia Moon)
Billy Wylder’s “Trying To Get Free” is out August 25. (Courtesy Olivia Moon)

David Byrne posed a series of rhetorical questions in the song “Once in a Lifetime.” "Am I right, am I wrong?" "My God, what have I done?" By asking these questions, Byrne didn’t yield any answers, but instead spawned bigger questions for us to ponder: What is right, and what is wrong? What decisions have I made to end up where I am? It’s musings like these, and music like Byrne’s, that kindled “Trying To Get Free,” the third full-length album from art rock group Billy Wylder, a band carrying the torch of the niche dug out by Talking Heads and their groundbreaking album "Remain in Light." It’s arty music with a global beat asking globally-sized questions.

“The themes of the music explore the concept of interdependence in freedom,” says Avi Salloway, the heart and voice behind the group since its inception over a decade ago in Cambridge. Interdependence is important to Salloway.  Through song, he ponders how humans rely on each other when seeking freedom, what barriers keep us from being free and how technology and nature relate to liberation. Where the music on “Trying To Get Free” offers a melange of flavors and styles, blending Tuareg guitar lines from the Saharan tradition with string orchestrations and rich vocal arrangements, the lyrics illustrate tension and discontent, prose filled with tears shed for the natural world and galvanizing calls to action.

“On this album, we really hit our stride, creatively, and with the ethos and soul of what our band is doing,” says Salloway.

Salloway, a Vermont native, is remarkably well-traveled, and his music reflects that. For several years, he served as an instrumentalist with Bombino, a Tuareg guitar phenom from Niger whose desert psych music found international success in the 2010s. Salloway also spent time in Jerusalem teaching music to young Arab and Jewish kids. But his background lies in American roots and folk music, having family ties to folk legend Pete Seeger (his grandparents met at Seeger’s music camp in the 1930s and Salloway attended the camp himself). From the Sahara to the Middle East and beyond, each one of his worldly experiences has been imprinted on his artistry. “All of that has been infused into my own songwriting,” he says.

From the album’s opening moments, the music resists classification. The spry “Flower to the Sun” presents the album’s diverse palate with flourishes of African guitar flutters, roaming violin lines and Salloway’s dry, conversational vocal delivery recalling poet folkies like Cass McCombs and Steve Gunn. “Smoke in your eyes/ A lover’s disguise,” he sings coolly, his voice shrouded in psychedelic textures and the staggered beat of a drum machine. “Wrapped in all the layers/ I see you in there.” It’s like he’s singing about his own musical core, a folksy, hippie spirit wrapped in layers of sound, experiences and worldly magic.

The album’s title track tackles the biggest concern of “Trying To Get Free.” “A billion people at our fingertips/ Never felt so far,” he pines over a thumping backbeat. “Truth is lost in the webs/ Cut the strings of our marionettes.” Such lamenting for the inescapable digital connection among human beings is the crux of Salloway’s impetus as a songwriter.

“[On ‘Trying To Get Free’] I’m acknowledging that we were born into a world that we did not make, which is filled with both beauty and brokenness. I’m coming to terms with that and realizing our own power to manifest the world that we do want to create.”

“But in the same breath, I feel like the album is full of so much hope,” he clarifies. He proves this in “We Are the Ones,” a soulful, foot-stomping folk tune. “We are the ones we are waiting for,” he sings with the backing of a choir. A song like this shows Salloway’s range as a songwriter while maintaining thematic continuity. Among a sea of North African and psychedelic influences, “We Are the Ones” sounds like something Paul Simon would have written for “Graceland.”

For an artist with such lofty statements, Salloway intertwines his artistic vision with unfeigned initiative. He’s a part of a movement called Musicians for Sustainability, a coalition targeted towards lowering the carbon footprint of the music industry. This also led to his involvement with  Imagine Zero, an aspiring zero-waste and zero-carbon emissions music festival in Vermont. “The concept of disassociation with nature is the biggest threat to our existence,” he says, an idea that’s deeply inscribed within the music of “Trying To Get Free.”

If Salloway’s newest release is a monolith meant to represent anything, it’s the dire need for connection with ourselves and our planet. “We want to bring disparate communities out into one space to dance and hear the music and start to build face-to-face human connections that are growing further and further apart in this social media landscape,” he says. There isn’t any better integrator than music with a beat like this.

Billy Wylder’s “Trying To Get Free” is out Aug. 25. They perform live at Rockwood Music Hall Boston on Sept. 10.


Charley Ruddell Music Writer
Charley Ruddell is a freelance music critic and contributor for WBUR.



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