Perfect Sound Forever

The Walkabouts

Carla and Chris live,  photo by Sara Roberts

by Kurt Wildermuth (July 2001)

"Slow Red Dawn," an elegant and sinuous piece of orchestrated pop on the Walkabouts' Nighttown CD (1997), is transcendently beautiful, life-changingly beautiful, so beautiful it's scary, and yet you've probably never heard it. Even if you've heard of the Walkabouts, you probably haven't encountered most of their music. They may be Seattle's best-kept secret, and this situation is tragic, akin to having masterworks of painting or sculpture hidden in a dusty corner of someone's basement, because the Walkabouts have been making great music-heartfelt, eloquent, imaginative, challenging-for nearly two decades. At this point they've disavowed, in fact suppressed, their first two releases (a self-titled cassette, from 1984, and the 22 Disasters EP, from 1985), but since 1988's See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens, made cheaply but still sounding fresh and still in print on CD, they haven't made a bad record. It's hard to imagine them making a bad record.

For all these years, the Walkabouts have been "on," inspired beyond the capacities of most musicians, performing to their fullest in the way that Bob Dylan performed to his during the mid '60s, say, or John Coltrane did with the Quartet. It's a grand claim, but Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson (who've also made great records as Chris & Carla-they're the band's leading figures and its only constant members from the beginning) deserve the comparison. Like Dylan and Coltrane-but without the mythic status-they seem to make music because they have to, because the sounds inside their heads need to come out, or because these sounds are moving through the atmosphere and someone has to capture them before they disappear. The Walkabouts make music a vital process; they take it to a place where craft meets passion and vision. Their songs feel like natural forces, works of nature, oddly shaped plants that have risen, spontaneously, solitarily, in the desert.

This unique, arresting strangeness characterizes the originals on See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens and applies equally to the cover versions on their most recent recording, Train Leaves at Eight (2000). An homage to some of their favorite European songwriters, from Jacques Brel to Solex, Train is a kind of follow-up or companion piece to Satisfied Mind (1993), itself a perfectly realized "concept album" that paid tribute to American sources (and songwriters influenced by American sources), from Charlie Rich to Patti Smith to Nick Cave. But whether they're reconstituting the folk, rock, pop, and new wave influences that run through Rattlesnake Gardens; diving into country and punk or incorporating electropop, acoustic balladry, chanson, Krautrock, and so on, the Walkabouts give their songs a signature twist-their own moody, often sinister, and deeply resonant spin.

Their basic sound combines Torgerson's high, exquisitely clear voice and Eckman's deep, gruff one; her rhythm guitar and his leads. Together with keyboardist Glenn Slater, bassist Michael Wells, and drummer Grant Eckman, they solidified that sound on their first Sub Pop releases, the Cataract album (1989) and the Rag & Bone EP (1990). On the more produced Scavenger album (1990), they expanded their approach, incorporating some Ramones-fast rhythms, some barrelhouse piano, even guest vocals by Natalie Merchant (on a sea-chanty-esque pop song, "Where the Deep Water Goes"). Most important, on that album's nine-minute epic, "Train to Mercy," which featured synthesizer and back-up vocals by Brian Eno and strings by the Bravura String Quartet, the Walkabouts stretched out and began fully investigating the spaces between sounds: an approach that would bring more and more atmosphere and drama to their music in the coming years. (Meanwhile, a more atmospheric and dramatic version of "Train," recorded live in a Dutch radio studio, appears on their 1996 compilation Death Valley Days: Lost Songs and Rarities, 1985-1995, which also functions as an alternative Walkabouts "history.")

As brilliant as those recordings were, however, the band truly came into its own on three albums-not a trilogy, though they could be one-that brought together underground American mythology and punk intensity in a way that Love and X, for instance, had pioneered. As though to compensate for the pristine, crystalline production of the country-folkish Satisfied Mind (drummer Terri Moeller's debut), 1984's New West Motel (Bruce Wirth's one appearance as full-time stringed instrumentalist) presented a thick mix of furious rhythms and buzzsaw guitars, its climax an anti-anthem called "Glad Nation's Death Song." The next year's Setting the Woods on Fire sounded even deeper and darker, like country-folk-garage-punk filtered through Exile on Main St. More than just "roots" music, this was rooted but brand-new and personal. The songs largely told stories about conflagrations-conflicts and fires-which the music made real.

Then a weird thing happened. The Walkabouts signed with Virgin, a major label, in Europe, but found themselves without a record contract in the U.S. They've been without a domestic label ever since, and their music has increasingly reflected European influences. But if the three albums they'd just released were the culmination of early explorations, each one a career peak, the two that followed were unqualified masterpieces. It sounds like a joke that Devil's Road (1996) was recorded in part with the Warsaw Philharmonic, but the orchestration glides over or darts around the band's increasingly fluid playing and, in all seriousness, takes the music to another level: moody, often sinister, and deeply resonant, but now also soaring. The album's opening ballad, "The Light Will Stay On," perhaps the most uplifting song ever written about death, became a hit single (breaking into the top 40 in Germany, Belgium, and Sweden; receiving extensive airplay in Holland, France, Greece, and Portugal; even grazing the top 100 in England). On Nighttown, the follow-up CD, the so-called Nighttown Orchestra may be even better, well, orchestrated into the mix, which also includes subtle, creepy electronics. And "Slow Red Dawn," perhaps the most uplifting song ever written about hope, became an even bigger hit, though in an alternative universe, where the Walkabouts went on to have a string of number ones, where they became household names, where they retired on their royalties, and where their genius continues to be celebrated. In our universe, Virgin dropped the Walkabouts after Nighttown didn't sell. They'd written the finest songs of their career, had enough money to record them right, brought all those years of professional and emotional experience to the recording, captured the sounds inside their heads and the sounds floating around out there (in the streets and back alleys of Seattle or wherever), only to be told that their work had failed.

The next Walkabouts CD, Trail of Stars (1999), appeared on Germany's invaluable Glitterhouse label (which had released New West Motel), and for the first time in a long time it showed signs of struggle. Eckman described it as a weird record, and it's weirdly fascinating. Baker Saunders, the bassist on Nighttown, had died of an overdose and been replaced by Fred Chalenor, who contributed a funkier sound that sometimes (as on the sexy "Drown," which really should have been a hit) worked fantastically and other times seemed forced. And while the band's tempos had slowed considerably on the Virgin recordings, here the Walkabouts seemed to have lost interest in playing fast or rocking out.

After that, when Chalenor and Moeller both left the band, it looked like mutiny. When Eckman released a solo CD (the extraordinary, raw, almost confessional A Janela, by mail order from Glitterhouse), it looked like the band was finished. Eckman, Torgerson, and Slater returned to the studio, however, and recorded Train Leaves at Eight with two members of the Posies, Joe Skyward and Brian Young, as rhythm section. It's another masterwork in a long line of them. The rare kind of covers collection that becomes a true portrait of the artists, not just as music makers but as music lovers, it takes the Walkabouts' sound in many new directions. It also, like a lot of great art, takes a while to sink in. The band's been on a journey, after all, even if that journey's been on a last train to nowhere, and they continue to move.

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Also see our 2012 follow-up article on the Walkabouts

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