woensdag 15 oktober 2014
Devil's Road. The Walkabouts
Devil's road is an odd album in the catalogue of The Walkabouts. It was the first of two records that they were able to release through a major record company, in Europe, while it, if I remember correctly, was never released at the time in the U.S. The Seattle, Washington based band was growing rapidly on the continent and especially in Germany and e.g. was able to play the larger club venues and at festivals here in NL. The record deal allowed the band to enlarge the production and it recorded with a symphony orchestra. Did this lead to success?
That answer is simple. No, it did not. The band never managed to make that final step. With the disappearance of the rock element in its music in the late 90s and early 00s, its popularity also slowly dwindled.
Did this enlarged budget lead to artistic success? That answer is also simple. Devils' road is an artistic triumph. Listening to opening song 'The light will stay on' is a treat straight away. The The Walkabouts take on folk rock and folk tales got an extra layer of class and depth. The eeriness is dripping off the record where necessary. The string section allows for melodies and counter melodies that lay bare the emotions of the murder of 'Rebecca Wild'. Carla Thorgersen is backed up by many, while the band blends itself with the orchestra, or formulated perhaps even better: the orchestra envelopes the band.
Not all songs get the larger than life treatment. 'The stopping off place' is blown up to gigantic proportions by the band with the fat Hammond sound, the lead guitar, fiery drumming and the bass that throws in some great runs here and there. Chris Eckman's first lead singing song is a winner by all accounts. 'Cold eye' is small by itself. A ballad with alt.country elements like a pedal steel with added effect to change its sound,. This creates an almost spooky element in a song that is acoustic, including a beautiful piano part. The Walkabouts is always about the beauty and the beast, in the voices of Chris and Carla, but also in the music and the lyrics. The beautiful woods of northern Washington versus the mystical woods of Twin Peaks? Just listen to 'Christmas valley' and see where the Angelo Badelamenti element is hidden in this song and the Mark Frost/David Lynch mysticism in apparently normal lyrics.
With the names of the two singers dropped, the central position of The Walkabouts was made clear. Chris & Carla, at the time partners, were at the heart of the band. The two singers and guitar players, weaving their voices and guitars in and out of each other. Around them keyboard player Glenn Slater, drummer Terri Moeller and bassist Michael Wells are the mainstays for most of the band's now 30 year career.
But back to the start. Just listen to the beginning of Devil's road. After Terri Mueller's pick up on the hi-hat, Michael Wells' bass has something menacing, slightly threatening, in a song that looks at the end of something, life itself is my take on it, in a melancholy, resigned way. The orchestra arrangement, the duo singing in the last verse, the guitar solo, all lead to pure musical beauty. The tone, the voice and atmosphere are all caught exactly right.
The end is also the subject of the next song. In fact murder, as this union activist was driven of the road. The song has this unique mix of an upbeat rhythm and seriousness and mourning. Another song that I can hear always and everywhere. The Walkabouts fans recognise this mood (swings) immediately of course. Nothing is ever completely right in the universe of Chris Eckman, the songwriter of the band. He has a peculiar way of looking at the world and the subjects that present themselves to him. He certainly has a fascination for the stories behind desperate people or people who found themselves on the other side of the success chain.
My absolute favourite is 'Blue head flame', In fact it may be my favourite The Walkabouts song ever. In fierce competition with 'Findlay's motel' from the 'New west motel' album. 'Blue head flame' is the song in which the orchestra works best with the band. Chris Eckman sounds almost frightening while salvation lies just beyond his voice in the soft harmonies in the chorus. The orchestra is not embellishing here, it rocks. Just like the band does. The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra captures this song so right. In my opinion an unique cooperation between classical and rock musicians.
In 'When fortune smiles' everything is back to the most basic level. Soft bass and shuffling drums and a few single notes on an organ. The guitar solo is mixed into the back. Carla sings softly. Again the uncomfortable lyrics. "That's when fortune smiled on you.... When you went running away from these arms". This sweet voice, back up by tubular bells playing as if church bells, and these dark lyrics. What is she really singing? What would have happened if this person hadn't run away? One can't help wandering. Another feat that too little people have heard.
'All for this' is another rocker on The Walkabouts repertoire. Carla gets away with a rocker also. Again the subtlety in the arrangement is noteworthy. Nothing is straightforward here. The singing, the piano notes high in the mix, the muted, but fully rocking, typical Eckman solo, Neil Young perfected. Just to mention the probably largest influence on the lead guitar side of the The Walkabouts style. And all with the exuberant orchestra arrangement. 'Fairground blues' is more of a band rocker. With a lead role for Glenn Slater's Hammond organ. Again there are so many pleasant details in this song that give away the fine ear this band has, to come up with ideas that make its songs stick out compared to may other band in this and other genres. Including the staccato played rhythm guitar, very un-Walkabouts.
'The leaving kind' is another ballad The Walkabout style. One of the songs that got a special treatment on the Chris & Carla album from Greece. An album they sold at shows, as this band always did. Special live albums, etc. The production level was so high in these days. Devil's road ends with 'Forgiveness song'. It sounds just what you expect it to be. A kind of song that makes a real impression at the end of an album. Fitting in text: "Last night you were the end" and mood. A farewell to the listener and to who knows to who else. Not long after Chris & Carla were no longer partners. The song brings to mind that other fantastic end song, 'Hoofdkaas' by De Kift. Both these songs are perfect endings. To their respective albums and this review.
Listening to Devil's road in 2014 can only lead to one conclusion. The Walkabouts were at the peak of its creativity. Afterwards it slowly, but surely, went downwards. Still very good, but never like this.
You can listen to 'The light will stay on' here: