Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Walkabouts - Travels in the Dustland

The Walkabouts
Travels in the Dustland
Glitterhouse GRCD 731

I first saw the Walkabouts perform in 1986 – I’m pretty sure it was at a bar named the 5-0 on 15th Avenue East in Seattle. They were a young band then, but the potential and the deep level of artistry was already there. Seven years later they were my first interview assignment when I started writing for The Rocket, and I couldn’t have been happier; I’d been a fan for a while then. Over the years I came to know them and develop a huge respect and love of their work. So, when talking to Chris Eckman a couple of years ago about his excellent Dirtmusic project, I asked if there’d ever be another Walkabouts album: “If we don’t do it soon it might never happen,” he answered, and the future didn’t look too good.

But they did do it, and Travels in the Dustland is more than worth the long wait. It’s still quite inimitably the Walks with the driving guitar rhythms and intensely poetic lyrics. But it also builds on what’s gone before. Since the 1990s there’s been a more cinematic sense to their music, but this time around it’s fully realised in what’s essentially a suite of songs, and that realisation is musical as well as lyrical. “My Diviner” and “The Dustlands” both have wide sweeps of sounds, but with minute attention to details that help add to that widescreen sensibility, such as the chamber orchestra on “The Dustlands” or the trumpet that echoes distantly towards the end of the piece to offer the idea of space. The band bring in a number of guests but use them very sparingly – this remains very much a group disc, one with a feel of the dry, parched Southwest rather than the lush green of their Northwest home. For musicians who don’t play together so often these days, they lock in together beautifully, and it’s a compliment to say you never notice the rhythm section; what they do is so exact, so perfect for each song that they don’t need to stand out. Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson are still the front people, their voices complementing each other as they always have.

It’s an album with epic ambitions and performances to match. A number of the songs are more than six minutes long, but never seem stretched out, a series of connected vignettes that highlight Eckman’s literate lyrics, which still possess that Raymond Carver-esque quality of image and a story encompassed in a few words. What they’ve created isn’t a rock album, but a disc that’s ultimately American music, both in sound and words tugging at the fabric (both real and mythical) of the country, and it’s a brilliant piece of works.

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