from Backlash (Seattle), April 1989
by Ransom Edison
"I trust you won't miss what has never been found," sings Carla Torgerson on The Walkabouts' second album, 'Cataract.' This pledge summarizes their motives as well as anything. 'Cataract' emerges as a sort of visionquest for the unreachable, trying to crack the rose-colored lens that fogs contemporary perceptions.
The Walkabouts' greatest strengths present also their most obvious obstacles. Their blend of folk and rock lacks an identification with the regional sound that a local audience could easily latch onto and while most of their songs are catchy enough, the difficulty of nailing down their style has prevented them from falling into a safe niche for easy exhibition.
However, this has also earned them a tenacity and integrity never easily come by.
The lyrics portray a similar situation. Written by guitarist/vocalist Chris Eckman, they're not vague or ambiguous so much as just twisted enough to allow for some unsettling interpretations, more effectively disturbing on a subconscious level. This reveals the cataract of the Walkabouts' vision: a peek behind the veil that hides our desperate condition.
Compared to The Walkabouts' debut album, last year's 'See Beautiful Rattlesnake Gardens,' 'Cataract' is a more refined and consistent effort, pushing the folk influence even further yet exploring a greater variety of musical approaches. While it certainly will please the Walkabouts' fans, I'm not certain it's going to win new converts.
Instrumentally, none of the band members come across as overly assertive; they rely more on careful interaction. Michael Wells' lithe bass work, and the steady pounding of Grant Eckman's drums have never complemented each other so well, weaving a mesmerizing rhythm that doesn't relax its grip until the final good-bye. Similarly for Chris' guitar and Carla, whether she's playing guitar, organ or cello. And the vocal harmonizing sounds incredible.
It all fits together well. But even when Chris blazes into a brief solo, it comes across as precisely planned. Sometimes I just want to scream "Go for it!' no matter what the neighbors will think. I think they did go for it on 'Got No Chains,' their contribution to the Sub Pop 200 compilation, the rawest sound they've captured.
The strong interaction extends to extras that contribute to this album, like Camper Van Beethoven's Jonathan Segel, whose violin underscores the rising and falling melody of 'Whereabouts Unknown' with skin-crawling squawks. 'Whereabouts Unknown' leaves the listener with taunts to "leave it alone" as "the best days are with us ... don't swim black waters, you'll just disappear." For me, it serves as a sardonic reply to Bobby McFerrin's 'Don't Worry, Be Happy.' 'Whereabouts Unknown' offers flippant advice that barely conceals a despair that seems to permeate 'Cataract.' Maybe the album as a whole is a cloaked protest album, indirectly challenging the audience to action.
It's never easy to tell, though and I'm sure the Walkabouts like confounding expectations. On 'Bones of Contention,' for instance, the upbeat lilt, complete with a cheery organ bleat, is contrasted with the imminent downfall given voice in Chris and Carla's duet. "And the poison you choose is the source of my confusion ... Please pass your hat." Anyone have a contribution?
My favorite cut on the album is the melancholy 'Home as Found,' with the haunting twang of Terry Lee Hale's rhythm guitar.
Anyone attempting to write off the Walkabouts as trapped with a folk-rock formula will be surprised by 'Smokestack,' as urban as the band ever gets, thanks partially to Carl Miller from Prudence Dredge on trombone. 'Smokestack' projects an unsightly picture of bleak surroundings with "no surprises left."
'The Wicked Skipper' pushes a couple of minutes of undistilled speed-country, with Grant slamming on the high hats, like an entire division of the cavalry. It serves as a good lead into a contemporary rendition of the traditional 'Drille Terriers,' a familiar folkie played with electric verve and force.
'Long Black Veil' is another striking example of the dark imagery the band reaches for. With slightly sinister hooks, it drags you to the final cut, 'Goodby (To All That)' played almost double time as the band makes a hasty exit.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of 'Cataract' is its release on the Sub Pop label. This should prove mutually beneficial. Sub Pop has a much wider national distribution than PopLlama, the label responsible for 'Rattlesnake Gardens.' But while Sub Pop is exposing the Walkabouts to a potentially much greater market than before, the Walkabouts presence will also expand the range of music Sub Pop offers, as this band diverges the most obviously from the trademark Sub Pop sound.
Furthermore, although Sub Pop has always enjoyed excellent national distribution, there have been difficulties with their products appearing in the Tower Records chains. The Walkabouts, on the other hand, have sold more records through Tower that anywhere else and are confident Tower will be eager to carry 'Cataract,' opening the door for other Sup Pop offerings. The Walkabouts on Sub Pop will hopefully be a breakthrough for both parties.