photo by Hilary Harris
Backtracking through Their Past Decade
By Kurt Wildermuth
Over a decade ago, I became obsessed with a band from Seattle called the Walkabouts, convinced that their recordings were as powerful, articulate, heartfelt, and finely crafted as the best music in the history of rock. To help spread the word about work that in a just world would be considered "classic," I wrote a career overview: At http://www.furious.com/perfect/walkabouts.html, you'll find a look at where Chris Eckman, Carla Torgerson, & Co. traveled from 1988 to 2000.
Since then, they've gone down various roads, taken some detours, and most recently ended up in familiar territory that they view with fresh eyes. In addition to Eckman (songwriting, vocals, guitars, keyboards) and Torgerson (vocals, guitar, cello, something called electric karimba), the band now consists of the drummer and percussionist Terri Moeller, the bassist Michael Wells, the keyboardist Glenn Slater, and the guitarist Paul Austin. Austin is new, but the rest of the lineup was together in the 1990s and has been back together for a few recordings over the past 10 years.
On their latest recording, Travels in the Dustland (2011, Glitterhouse), the Walkabouts deliver the desert epic they've been heading toward since the beginning. The dustland, dust, land, dirt, vistas, and so on, have been basic to their take on the world. Not for nothing was their first album called See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens and their 1996 collection of "rarities & lost songs" called Death Valley Days.
Place has served the Walkabouts as the setting for drama:
I was walkin' up to Jack Candy's trailerBoth setting and drama have served as the means of exploring psychological space:
When he shouted I had better head home
The curtains closed as he went back inside
And I trembled 'cause he wasn't alone
("Jack Candy," 1993)but that night on the mountain,For a long time, in their lyrical concerns, iconography, and musical textures, the band focused on a kind of David Lynchian Americana. In the early '90's, this approach culminated in Satisfied Mind (American songs, from folk to punk, as states of consciousness), New West Motel (punk country as shards of metal and flying glass), and Setting the Woods on Fire (garage folk as barbed wire and falling timber).
I staged my own death
left my clothes scattered far
down the trail
and I dreamed of your neck,
your raven-haired crown
with no trace, I jumped over the rail
("The Stopping-Off Place," 1995)
But the U.S. being oblivious to many of its own natural wonders and Europe being a more receptive market for somber beauty and smoldering fury, the Walkabouts became the musical equivalent of expatriates. In the mid to late '90's, the soaring, orchestrated folk/pop of Devil's Road, the neon noir of Nighttown, and the thudding yet sparkling stabs at soul of Trail of Stars found homes mainly on the Continent. In 2000, the European covers album Train Leaves at Eight made this shift of turf explicit.
At some point or points, Eckman married an Estonian woman and moved to Llubjana. So this band that has seemed to live and breathe the American West, in particular the Pacific Northwest, was now headed by a singer/songwriter with his feet planted in Eastern Europe. On his subsequent solo albums--the impressionistic The Black Field (2003) and the expressionistic The Last Side of the Mountain (2008), the latter with lyrics based on poetry by the Slovenian writer Dane Zajc--Eckman depicts or reflects on new landscapes. The Walkabouts' recordings have remained characteristically unpredictable in their details. The band might not break new ground from release to release, but they subtly reinvent themselves by refining what they already do so well.
Drunken Soundtracks: Lost Songs & Rarities 1995–2001 (2001) is Death Valley Days revisited but improved on. This two-disc set extends the band's secret history by collecting tracks from its most creatively fertile period. As a gift to fans, it ranks with Dylan's Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 (2008), which gave us alternative looks at a late-career renaissance. On Drunken Soundtracks, the Walkabouts give us more of what was so great on Setting the Woods on Fire, Devil's Road, and Nighttown: genres fused, beauty and tragedy indistinguishable. The band goes a step further by providing stripped-down mixes of Trail of Stars tracks: a glimpse at how much sharper and more enjoyable that album might have been without its somewhat gaudy overproduction.
The full-length Ended Up a Stranger (2001) finds the Walkabouts reinvigorated, having swapped their American Western wanderings for a restless cosmopolitanism. Drama and place remain the thematic touchstones, but now the dramas are overtly psychological rather than mythic. Or rather, the psychological becomes the mythic, as in one of the album's focal points, "Life: The Movie." The opening track, "Lazarus Heart," establishes inner territory with quickly depicted details: "I keep crashin' into parked cars / waitin' for a horse / and its blue rider." The refrain of "Winslow Place"--"the wind at Winslow Place / reached all the rooms"--distills times and moods.
The album's title track is like an urban variation on Samuel Beckett's monodrama Krapp's Last Tape. Here, instead of an old man listening to autobiographical tape recordings, a younger man cruises through the city, recording "every sound... my symphony of phantoms." He's searching for a sense of self through a sense of connection with others. "I ended up a stranger / In my old haunts." The finale gathers a sweet mix of violins and accordion, intense percussion, and a Neil Young–style electric guitar lead into a rising tide, a crescendo more sweeping than one normally associates with the Walkabouts. In fact, throughout Ended Up a Stranger, the Walkabouts broaden their stylistic palette. "See It in the Dark" aims for Bowie-esque glam rock. "More Heat than Light" and "Fallen Down Moon" draw on Lennon-esque psychedelia. "Mary Edwards" is a space age bachelor pad instrumental minus the kitsch.
Next up was the five-song EP Slow Days with Nina (2003), released only in the U.K. These covers are odder than most of the stray cuts on Drunken Soundtracks. Shortly after Nina Simone's death, Eckman, Torgerson, and Slater paid tribute to Simone by working through songs associated with her. "Our effort is meditation," Eckman writes in his liner notes. If you didn't know these were Simone covers, you might think they were particularly spare, pretty Walkabouts songs--or maybe Chris & Carla & Glenn songs. Eckman's gravel-filtered vocal on "Nobody's Fault but Mine" carries the trademark Walkabouts death rattle, but his solo acoustic "The Desperate Ones" could easily fit on one of his solo albums. While Torgerson's ultra Caucasian, very precise pronunciation on "Cotton-Eyed Joe" is more Joan Baez than Nina Simone, her versions of "Lilac Wine" and "Come Ye" are beautiful and soulful enough to justify Walkabouts' fans seeking out the EP.
Two years later, the full Walkabouts literally roared back with Acetylene, their hardest, loudest, and fastest album since Setting the Woods on Fire. September 11 and President George W. Bush administration's responses to it had changed the world. Acetylene's opening track responds bluntly yet with multiple dimensions to the New World Order: "Fuck Your Fear." Digging in and grinding away, the band more than supports the sentiment. Who'd have expected these veteran slowpokes, these purveyors of twangy country and orchestrated pop/rock that sometimes verges on easy listening, to regain their punk edge? The gamut here runs from disgust to rage, with some despair mixed in. Some of the melodies are lovely. Mainly, the music serves to convey the no-nonsense intensity of the lyrics.
On Acetylene, the storytelling and positions are political in the way Kafka is, the way Joy Division is: by focusing on particulars that are also abstractions that represent feeling, by depicting individuals menaced by systems and shadows. "This ain't hell, it's a holding tank / Where memory and the future draw a big fat blank." "The devil's in the coffin / Of the details." "They take us in for identity checks / They've been roundin' up all their best bets." "When we're out there in the zone / You're gonna have to trust me." "Bless the beasts! / and the blowtorch." "Divide and conquer / Is the new mathematics / But it's as old as the hills / On which all the mansions die proud." "She touched my hand / Said: ‘I'm gonna love you when you're dead.'" "They're lining up the last suspects / Beneath a rusty glow." And so on. The times are desperate, ruled by military forces. The language is bare, studded with B-movie war and adventure clichés. This place, wherever it is, sucks. You need luck to stay alive here, but you might be luckier to die your way out. Had the Walkabouts never recorded again, they could have wrapped up their discographic journey on one of their highest notes, a work of art that speaks to and transcends its time. This music sounds like how it felt to be an American the night the U.S. invaded Iraq, like how it feels to live with the knowledge that you have blood on your hands by proxy.
Chris & Carla's third studio recording as a duo, Fly High Brave Dreamers (2007), flips the coin and finds a marginally more hopeful side. The lyrics--again, a mix of abstractions and personal observations--at least partly address the political climate of the time. The opening track, "At the Twilight's Last Gleaming," depicts the status quo starkly:Can't tell the difference anymoreThe music is far lighter, prettier, and more finely textured than on the gruff Acetylene, to which this recording feels like a spiritual companion piece. "Forgiveness is / A messy business," as the singer explains on "Whatever It Takes." But the aim is transcendence, as on the title song: "Fly High / Brave dreamers / Dream brave for us tonight," the duo repeats, as the music seems to lift off into the stratosphere.
Between the prophet and the bore
Between the rumor and the burn
They speak their peace, it's not their turn
Guess they need to have their fun
Seem to know not what they've done
Guilty parties flee the room
Chris & Carla's Fly High Brave Dreamers seemed to at least come to terms with an increasingly unrecognizable world. Four years later, the Walkabouts are traveling in a merciless dustland. The dustland could be anywhere that's dry enough, and the imagery in the CD package generalizes to sand and hills. One of the booklet's epigraphs comes from the American writer William T. Vollmann: "Where was I? Sometimes I know, but long after the fact." Another epigraph comes from the American expatriate Paul Bowles, and it refers only to "the vast, luminous, silent country" and "the absolute." Setting personal dramas in some desert place, Eckman broadens his scope from the physical to the metaphysical, metaphorical, and mythical. As the epigraphs--and numbered part titles--signal, he's reaching for literary resonance. Coming from another singer/songwriter, the results would be pretentious. But pretension equals overreaching, and the ambitious conceptuality here is well within Eckman's reach.
If his art has one failing, one major limitation, it's a lack of humor. Every now and then, he delivers a stone-faced irony, as in "Well they dragged me down to the debtor's jail / Where no one cried 'cause the drinks were free" ("Glad Nation's Death Song," 1993). Eckman no doubt enjoys a good laugh--and on a Mojo compilation he covered the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," so he must be able to tolerate whimsy--but he hasn't included the slightest bit of lightheartedness in the Walkabouts' lexicon. Tender observations are everywhere, and love exists, but the Walkabouts' worldview is grim, suffused with isolation, violence, and death. Travels in the Dustland paints that picture on the widest canvas yet, where the canyons and mesas are scarily vast theaters, where weird scenes happen in shimmering retrospect and then dissolve.
"My diviner," "soul thief," "the rainmaker," "the Jackal," and "the Barrister" are what pass for proper names. "It hasn't rained much / Out here this year / It's a new kind of dry / One that chokes on its fear / Till it don't cough." This place is "a land not down on any map," where "the Burnpile grows / from the kindling / Of our souls" and "the blood songs / Sing to themselves: Horizon Fade." The effect suggests the stripped-to-the-bone prose of the novelist Cormac McCarthy: think Blood Meridian meets The Road, minus the scalpings, the cannibalism, and children. Serious people do the serious business of surviving against the elements, each other, and themselves: "In this country of the dead / Brazen hunger still gets fed." The Walkabouts' earliest albums glimpsed this great emptiness. Those doses culminated in the wildernesses of New West Motel and Setting the Woods on Fire. And the savage wildness of those visions was updated, given a new genre spin, in the apocalyptic battle zones of Acetylene.
On Travels in the Dustland, the sound picks up elements of those works, particularly the pounding rhythms of New West Motel and the swirling keyboards of Setting the Woods on Fire. Into that mix come the ringing guitars and soaring orchestrations of Devil's Road, Nighttown, Trail of Stars, and Ended Up a Stranger. In fact, the orchestrations on Travels in the Dustland may be the Walkabouts' best use of that potentially overbearing embellishment. Eckman arranged the strings and produced the recording, and the results are so atmospheric that the strings seem to have a life of their own, as though they represent the sighing, howling, ripping forces that bear down on the human stick figures trying to stay upright as the dust swirls around them.
Consider the near title track, "The Dustlands": "When I reach the river towns / Dustlands call." The rhythm section moves steadily, almost briskly, suggesting the ground underfoot or an understanding the singer won't necessarily articulate. Layers of strumming, percussive punctuations, wiry sonic crevices, and a sweet little guitar lick illustrate the terrain. Above it all, the consistently inventive strings provide the zero-humidity air of desert skies.
If Travels in the Dustland were a debut, the indie rock world would be welcoming these visionary musicians and looking forward to following their future directions. Instead, this recording feels like the culmination of all the band's previous work, a recapitulation but also a gathering of strengths. It could so easily have seemed tired or fallen into self-parody. Because Eckman is so committed to realizing his postapocalyptic panorama--and because Torgerson, Moeller, Wells, Slater, and Austin are so adept at crafting the particulars of the landscape without getting corny or melodramatic--this work feels brave and monumental. It depicts a wasteland in which nothing matters. But like the works of masters and outsiders, Travels in the Dustland feels necessary.
Visit www.thewalkabouts.com and www.glitterhouse.com.
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