'Drunken soundtracks' by The Walkabouts
by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
In Britain, at least, The Walkabouts are a well-kept secret, as they are in their native US. This may well have something to do with the fact that they systematically defy expectations. Coming out of Seattle in the early 1990s, they owe absolutely nothing to the city's signature grunge scene that marked every other band emerging from there at the same time. In fact, they have a sound much reminiscent of early solo Nick Cave or, perhaps more closely, the glorious but long-neglected Triffids, another Australian export of the 80s, given, like the Walkabouts, to cinematic, faintly gothic, epics of fear, death and open roads. However, paint them as goth-tinged miserablists and you completely miss the strand of alt country which led them to release an album of country covers revisiting Hank Williams and the like. Put them in this bracket and you fail to account for the massive European influence that infuses their sound.
This album makes an excellent point at which to look back over The Walkabouts career and consider who, exactly, they are. Its subtitle is 'Lost Songs and Rarities 1995-2001' and consists of a reversed chronological trawl through unreleased material, remixes and limited release tracks, covering pretty much every aspect of their prolific output over the period.
The first thing that strikes you is the consistency of the material included here, such collections are, all too often, ghastly barrel-scrapings, full of weak b-sides undeserving of resurrection, but Drunken Soundtracks can stand proud alongside any of the band's major albums. There are the occasional lapses into "Walkabouts by numbers" (Death's Black Train, Thieves Like Us), but none are disastrous, and some superb songs resurface, such as the title track and Cover of Darkness. The band's diverse taste in covers is also brought to the fore here, there are two Serge Gainsbourg covers, Sorry Angel and Bonnie and Clyde, Neil Young's Albequerque, Scott Walker's Cowbells Shaking, Corcovado by Carlos Jobim, Townes van Zant's Sanatorium Blues and even Neil Diamond's Glory Road. Every one is cracking, keeping a sense of the original, but making the song their own none the less, no mean feat given the diverse origins of the material. It requires a genuine love of the songs and a strong sense of musical identity to pull this off, something they managed with even greater aplomb on their album The Train Leaves at Eight, where they covered Walker and Gainsbourg as well as Mikis Theodorakis, Deus, Solex and Others to pretty much uniform success.
The fact that they are pretty much a cult band does not seem to deter The Walkabouts, they have been producing consistently excellent music for over 10 years and remain on top of their game - they deserve a much higher profile.