by Scott Schinder
Seattle's Walkabouts play a quirkily personalized brand of updated folk-rock, distinguished by a darkly layered sound and the yin/yang vocals of founders Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson. The early releases on Necessity and PopLlama find the band sounding a bit tentative and unformed, but contain enough flashes of inspiration to encourage further attention. Cataract and the six-song Rag & Bone (combined as Rag & Bone Plus Cataract, a single CD bearing the EP's original artwork) are more distinctive, mining a richly shadowy strain of Americana. The addition of keyboardist Glenn Slater is significant to the EP, helping to broaden the band's sound.
Scavenger (which adds a name producer, Gary Smith, and guest appearances by Brian Eno and Natalie Merchant) is impressive, even if the artificially speedy tempos of such numbers as "Dead Man Rise" and "Stir the Ashes" rob the songs of a certain amount of atmosphere. And even if Smith's bright, seamless production is unsuited to the subtle menace of tunes like "The Night Watch" and "Where the Deep Water Goes," the material is strong enough that the quintet's fundamental integrity still shines through, with Torgerson emerging as a particularly commanding presence. Where the Deep Water Goes combines two Scavenger tracks with non- album covers of Alex Chilton ("Big Black Car") and Neil Young ("On the Beach"), while Dead Man Rise contains the titular album track, a remix of another ("Train to Mercy") and three European radio-session recordings.
It's a shame that Sub Pop didn't see fit to release New West Motel domestically, since it's the album on which the Walkabouts truly come into their own. The more organic production approach showcases the band's instrumental strengths, giving songs like "Jack Candy." "Your Hope Shines" and "Break It Down Gently" new textures as well as a sense of aggression that's more conducive to the darker elements of the group's personality. The Jack Candy CD EP features Tom Waits and Neil Young tunes as well as an interesting reworking of a traditional gospel number.
The largely acoustic-flavored Satisfied Mind is an unsurprisingly eloquent collection of interpretations of songs from sources as diverse as the Carter Family, Charlie Rich, Patti Smith and Nick Cave. The Walkabouts' skillful renditions illuminate and extend the band's own vision; among the guests are R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan.
Though its title quotes an old Hank Williams tune, the consistently ace Setting the Woods on Fire features all original material. It pretty much picks up where New West Motel leaves off, with strong tunes like "Firetrap," "Good Luck Morning" and the rousing, horn-driven "Hole in the Mountain" given a spiky, fullbodied grace. The Good Luck Morning EP includes two album tracks and two live numbers.
Devil's Road, the first Walkabouts disc on which the compositions are credited solely to Eckman, is its most ambitiously eclectic album and certainly one of its best. The band sounds stronger and more distinctive than ever, and the excellent use of strings on six tracks enhances the emotional potency of both restrained, aching Torgerson-sung songs ("The Light Will Stay On," "Christmas Valley") and more aggressive Eckman-led material like "Blue Head Flame."
The three Chris and Carla releases are worthy adjuncts to the Walkabouts' catalogue. Shelter for an Evening is an unadorned live recording from two acoustic duo shows in Germany, with an agreeable mix of Walkabouts material and songs by Dylan, Young, Jimmy Webb and Richard Thompson. Life Full of Holes, a full-blown studio effort, is not dissimilar to Walkabouts albums except for the more relaxed (though hardly complacent) sound. The pair is here joined by the rest of the Walkabouts, Tindersticks (who back up the duo on two tracks), Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey on a typically fine set of mostly original material. Nights Between Stations was recorded live in Greece with backing by local musicians.
The group's two Sub Pop releases (collected on a single CD) feature upgraded production and more confident playing. The full-length "Cataract" resonates with rueful Americana on such tracks as "Whiskey XXX," "Hell's Soup Kitchen" and "Long Black Veil" (not the traditional song), marking The Walkabouts7 as a distinctive band with loads of potential. The six-song "Rag & Bone" adds a keyboard player to the original four-person lineup, and makes good use of the expanded cast with consistently imaginative arrangements, from the honky-tonking of "The Anvil Song" to the acoustic hush of "Medicine Hat."