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The Walkabouts - Travels in the Dustland

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Artist: The Walkabouts

Album: Travels in the Dustland

Label: Glitterhouse

Review date: Jan. 20, 2012

Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson, the creative axis of The Walkabouts, are framing their new album, Travels In The Dustland, as a song cycle about a mythical America. Eckman has already evoked Faulkner in interviews, and you can see his point, with the eleven songs on the record floating through some part-fact-part-fiction, imagined-reality (but thankfully not magic-realist) version of the American desert. It’s a world that ‘teaches cause it takes away,’ as Torgerson sings in “They Are Not Like Us,” a world bordered by the great infinite.

It’s been a long road for The Walkabouts, who started in Seattle in the mid-1980s with a few good ideas about how the American song book could be carved up into some new shapes. A lot of us first discovered them through the patronage of Sub Pop, where they wore the long black veil to grunge’s flannel shirts, the label anomaly that stood out for their refusal to fall into line. They’ve found far greater success in Europe, which seems almost to be the measure of a great American group from this particular era. They’ve tussled with the major label life, and had their tangles with the music industry’s endless cycle of tour-record-tour, the latter of which seems to have informed the unusually protracted gestation period between this album and its predecessor, 2005’s high-wire act, Acetylene.

While this new album is more-or-less about America, there’s nothing as dictatorial as a ‘state of the nation’ address here. Rather, Travels In The Dustland draws power from metaphoric resonance (desert landscape, emotional evacuation, moral-political absenteeism). In recent correspondence with a friend, he mentioned that Eckman is ‘an immaculate writer of great, potentially classic songs,’ and there are plenty here, all arranged with typical Walkabouts style: banks of tremolo’d guitar brushing up against hot-wired organ; great lagoons of reverberant acoustic strum; piano fables with the viscera showing. And the way they navigate this terrain, from parched balladry, through tempestuous rock, and string-emboldened cinematics, has all the weight and heft of something like Scott Walker’s Tilt. But the astringent, literate rigor of the songs also reminds me, just a little, of The Mekons.

Travels In The Dustland is divided into four ‘sections,’ each introduced in the accompanying lyric book by a relevant quote from, respectively, Paul Bowles, Jeremiah 12:11-12, Willa Cather and William T. Vollmann. The Bowles piece quoted, “Baptism of Solitude,” is a travel essay on the Sahara and must hold particular resonance for Eckman. He has recently travelled through the Sahara, deep into the heart of Tuareg country, at least in part to further ground his understanding of the music of Tamikrest, for whom he has produced several albums. Tamikrest also worked with Eckman, Hugo Race and Chris Brokaw on the 2010 Dirtmusic album, BKO.

If anything, though, it’s Bowles’s reflections on the silence of the desert, the way its stillness rearranges your molecular structure, that resonates with Travels In The Dustland. In this landscape, ‘nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your own heart beating.’ Some of the protagonists of the album seem to be on an unspoken hunt for such a state, but their interior monologues keep getting in the way. Those monologues are the core of the songs here, and their tales are so archetypal that Cather actually deserves the last word here. This classic line from O Pioneers! captures the way The Walkabouts touch on eternal themes through observational precision: ‘There are only two or three stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.’

By Jon Dale

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