Loading...

Dispatches From the Devil’s Road 

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
Comments

This month, the Walkabouts, among the longest-running, most prolific rock acts to emerge from the Pacific Northwest, will reach a career milestone: They will have a CD released in their own country again. That hasn‘t happened for the better part of a decade. Meanwhile, another underground Seattle fixture, Green Pajamas front man Jeff Kelly, has somehow managed to secure the release of Melancholy Sun, a four-disc box collecting solo albums previously available only as limited-run cassettes, if at all. Like most fans of these artists, I suspect that my affection for them outstrips their significance or even artistic merits. I love them because they continue to exist, radiating a low but steady light to those who know where to look in the dimming indie-rock firmament.

Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson, the Walkabouts’ founder-leaders, have been performing together since the mid-‘80s. Brooding and bluesy, obsessed with miners and backroad motels and train wrecks, the Walkabouts are the closest thing this country has produced to Fairport Convention and the British rock-folk wave. Of course, they formed almost 20 years after the rock-folk wave crested. And they surfaced in Seattle -- on Sub Pop, no less -- right as that label unleashed grunge on a bored nation. In their hometown, at the height of their American popularity, they were an anachronism.

Over the years, their weaknesses have remained consistent. Eckman tends to slip into caricature when he sings, rasping for all he’s worth but coming off too a friendly, nonetheless: Howlin‘ Lhasa Apso. His lyrics, replete with devil’s roads and hangmen but few stories, seem gleaned from some American Folk-Gothic dictionary, and strangely out of context.

Related Stories

  • Why Your Band Shouldn't Play Benefits for Free

    Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to...
  • Could a City-Wide $15 Minimum Wage Be Coming to L.A.? 9

    You may have heard that Seattle passed a citywide $15 minimum wage last month, highest of any city in the U.S. You could even feel a little jealous of our northern neighbors, given how expensive rent is in Los Angeles. Well, brace yourself, because the "fight for fifteen" has arrived in L.A., with...
  • Game of Drones: How LAPD Got Seattle's Rejects 8

    When a Seattle Police Department commander boarded a commercial jet to L.A. three weeks ago, below him in the cargo hold were two large packages he'd checked as baggage — two miniature, 3-foot-long, camera-equipped helicopters, destined for the LAPD. It had been almost a year since the two 3.5-pound Draganflyer...
  • Badass Country Punk Band Descends on Los Angeles

    Punk and country are generally considered opposite ends of the music spectrum, but they have more in common historically than most people realize. Long before event the emergence of alt-country a couple decades ago, amphetamine-popping, whiskey-gulping, pot-smoking badasses like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson played the roughly same role in...
  • Bacon Cronut Burger

    Relax, Los Angeles. We now have a bacon cronut burger.  This is thanks to chef Marc Elliot and his new restaurant Old School Eatery, which opened this past Tuesday on the very eastern edge of Pasadena. The theme is retro cuisine with clever twists and local ingredients.  Elliot is quite the character...

But Eckman is a magnificent melodist, and on the new CD there are at least half a dozen terrific, moody songs, long on hooks and murky atmosphere. Perhaps the one that best illustrates the aesthetic is the climactic hidden cut (only on the single), a cover of Serge Gainsbourg‘s “Bonnie & Clyde.” Eckman mutters, “In love, even crime can draw the tie that binds.” Then Torgerson (who sings lead most of the time now) kicks in, grounding the tune with her affectless, doomy chanting and lending it weight. There is no irony, no attempt at revisionism. The Walkabouts aren’t in love with Bonnie and Clyde, bank robber--murderers, but they‘re in love with the myth of them, and maybe that’s why their art has never seemed fake even when it felt received.

At least the Walkabouts have recorded for Virgin and charted in Italy and Germany. I didn‘t even hear of the Green Pajamas until years after I’d left Seattle. In an interview last year on WNTI-FM in New Jersey, Jeff Kelly indicated that the band long ago decided to stop constant touring, musing, “Why go out and play for 15 people that don‘t really care?” Instead, Kelly built a studio in the basement of his house, and he’s been recording down there, with or without companions, ever since. Recent Green Pajamas releases like 1999‘s All Clues Lead to Meagan’s Bed have achieved a modicum of indie sales success, but Kelly retains a hermetic aura. Sometimes he emerges to master new material at a studio, or to go to work (last I heard, he was some sort of hospital receptionist). Nearly all his music is dedicated to his wife, Susanne, so maybe she drags him out to a movie sometimes.

Like Eckman‘s, Kelly’s compositions are melodic, essentially derivative, and full of marvels. He prefers chord progressions ripped from LennonMcCartney and chiming guitars grafted from Byrds records. Lyrically, he‘s the world’s most sentimental goth -- he writes about vampires a lot, but he‘s “haunted forever” by Laura Petrie’s eyes. He sings like my friend Joe, and yours, too -- in a plain voice that hits most of the notes but adds nothing to them. On the first two discs of Melancholy Sun, Kelly sets himself loose in a wonderland of sweet, accordion-draped waltzes and banjo-spiked folk tunes. The latter discs boast more overt psychedelic embellishments but come off like demos for Green Pajamas tracks. Still, there are treasures throughout the box.

In the end, I can‘t call Jeff Kelly or the Walkabouts important in any music-crit sense. I can’t even call them great on their own terms. But I love the way the windmills they tilt at continue to mesmerize them. I love the way they keep generating at least one song per disc that gets my friends clamoring “Who is that?” when I play my best-of-year mixtapes. Sometimes I think they‘re the embodiment of what I always thought was the post-punk indie credo, the musicians who will make music forever because it moves them and never let it become a commodity and never let it die.

I do love them, in other words. But I may love the myth I can’t help imagining for them more.

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Slideshows

  • OK GO @ The Troubadour
    OK GO performed to a sold out Troubadour on Tuesday night. Their fourth studio album, Hungry Ghosts, is out soon. DC Myles Hendrik opened the night. All photos by Timothy Norris.
  • Nico Vega's Album Release Party
    The Sunset Strip burned up the music scene as Nico Vega launched their Lead to Light record release bash Monday night at The Roxy. Dark Waves played an amazing debut performance, while Queen Caveat broke open the the jammed packed club. Nico Vegas frontwoman Aja Volkman danced in the crowd, brought the party on stage, and painted dots on fans foreheads. Good times as always on the Strip! All photos by Michele McManmon.
  • Air Guitar Championship Semifinals @ The Troubadour
    The Southwest Semifinals of the US Air Guitar Championship were held last Saturday at the historic Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. The event determined who would compete as regional representatives at the 2014 National Finals in Kansas City on August 9th. The colorful contestants (many of whom opted for elaborate codpieces) were judged by comedians Kristen Schaal and the Sklar Brothers. The top score was awarded to crowd-surfing guitarist Kingslayer, the mother of a teenage son who also competed wearing little more than an American flag bathing suit. All photos by Gustavo Turner.