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Dispatches From the Devil’s Road

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.

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.


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