Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Walkabouts - Travels In The Dustland

Ambitious state of the nation address from Seattle's long serving ambient roots rockers.

“They've all come to look for America” - Simon And Garfunkel, America, 1968

“You don't have to search for it, and it don't give a shit” - The Walkabouts, The Dustlands, 2011

For their 15th studio album and their first since 2005's Acetylene, Seattle's Walkabouts have come up with a loosely based song cycle or concept album concerning a semi-mythical place, The Dustlands. It doesn't take a genius to work out (and by the press release's own admission) what they're really talking about is their own country, the good ol' US of A. Of course it's long been a theme of many an American artist's work to try and capture the essence of this fascinating and young country. From Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, through to Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Green Day, it's an obsession that can last a whole career and still only only begin to scratch the surface. A brave band then to approach such a task as America is still suffering from a crisis of confidence 10 years after the horrors of 9/11, consolidated by the knocks it's taken from the global recession.

Click over the jump for more on The Walkabouts - Travels In The Dustland
In the hands of a lesser band such a weighty subject could yield embarrassing results but there's enough maturity and strong yet understated writing here to make this something of a minor masterpiece. Despite the apocalyptic thread running through the lyrics, there's no doubt they're referencing modern day America, though the writing also reaches back through history to a more ancient country. This is an aspect of the album which is enhanced by the native American style cave paintings depicted on the album booklet's artwork. The album is divided into 4 sections, each marked in the sleeve notes by a quotation from a heavyweight American author (Paul Bowles, Willa Cather, William T. Volmann) or a biblical passage from the book of Jeremiah.

Vocal duties are shared between main songwriter Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson, providing a nice yin/yang balance. Torgerson sings the opening track “My Diviner” which sounds not unlike a Daniel Lanois production (think Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball), gentle pedal steel conjuring up open spaces and heat-hazed horizons. Eckman then takes the lead vocal for “The Dustlands” and the driving “Soul Thief” with it's fast tremoloed electric guitar backing.

In contrast to this Torgerson then takes the lead for sad piano ballad “They Are Not Like Us” along with the beguiling 5/4 time signature of “Thin Of The Air”, a track worthy of classic era Jefferson Airship, doom laden yet at the same time mystical and enticing. There's enough variety and difference in texture to the songs to sustain listening to the album in one sitting, and it's fairly lengthy listen, the eleven songs clocking in at fifty seven minutes in total. Despite such differences they all lend credence and weight to the album as a whole. Worth investigating.