When the Walkabouts emerged from Washington State in the late eighties, it was in the middle of the grunge boom. Despite being signed to Sub Pop, they never really fitted in with the punk-tinged hard rock ethos of their peers. Then when the alt-country thing happened a few years later, they simply rocked too hard to sit comfortably with the “new sounds from the old west” back-to-the-land crew either. Even though they recorded an album of country covers, Satisfied Mind, they still failed to fit in.
In Europe, though, especially in Germany and other central European states, they gathered a following. Like Tindersticks and the Bad Seeds, their sound grew increasingly cinematic and increasingly European. Albums like Night Town and Devil’s Road seemed to plug more easily into the sensibilities of cities like Berlin and Paris than New York and Seattle (or indeed London). The covers album Train Leaves At Eight emphasised this. Few rock bands could cover Neu! (“Leb’ Wohl”) and make the music sound their own.
The Walkabouts’ biggest assets have always been the voices of Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson. Although they don’t often sing harmony, Eckman’s gruff baritone and Torgerson’s clear country tones have always been perfectly complementary. The latter is probably best known in the UK at least for “Travelling light” her duet with Stuart Staples on the second Tindersticks album.
By the time Ended Up a Stranger appeared in 2001, the group already had ten albums behind them, as well as out-takes compilations and Chris and Carla duet records. There is an air of weariness throughout the record. It’s riddled with disillusion and alienation. Not in a teenage “no one understands me” way, but more reflecting that point in life where idealism and optimism have been ground down into cynicism and resignation.
“Lazarus Heart” is a beautiful opener – haunting, but somehow confused, almost as if Carla’s forgotten how to feel. It’s a common theme. “Life: The Movie” sees Chris’s protagonist stepping out of himself and seeing his whole existence as if it’s something happening to someone else. It’s not all downtempo. “See It In The Dark” rips along, with added brass giving the song an r&b flavour – hell, it’s almost dancefloor material. The Tindersticks comparisons are most evident on the instrumental “Mary Edwards” written by keyboard player and arranger Glenn Slater; there is definitely a common heart shared by the two groups.
“Winslow Place” is a cousin of Grant Hart’s “2541”. It captures perfectly the memories that a house intractably holds beyond the end of a relationship, like ghosts of better times. “…the swallows streak ‘n’ turn, then fade into the north / guide wires suspend them, not from heaven, not from earth / I know they’ll be returnin’ and I guess I know you won’t”.
With the album pacing like a movie, “Cul de Sac” has the stirring sound of a climactic third act. “Climb” marks the point in a broken relationship when the grieving turns to anger and resolve: “if you hate me just for tryin’, you’ll hate me when I’m done I swear”. But if it sounds like everything is gonna be all right in the end, the title track comes as an unwelcome jolt. Over the course of eight and a half minutes of slo-mo, brooding malevolence, Eckman’s protagonist drives around his hometown streets, recording the urban night with his microphone out of the back seat window. Taping life, but unable to connect with it any more. Even though he “once was warned you’d be the grave in which I’d lie”, he once had faith. Now nothing. “And I’ll listen to these tapes I’ve made, my symphony of phantoms. Lord, I’ve ended up a stranger in my old haunts.” An epic coda of guitar and strings fades away into ghostly clanking, tape noise and then silence.
It took the band three years to issue a follow-up, and when it came, Acetylene was deeply disappointing. Politically engaged, angry and loud, there was nevertheless something strangely flat about it. Perhaps the time was right to change tack, but it was an experiment that didn’t really come off. There’s been nothing since. But even if there’s nothing more, the Walkabouts left us with a slew of good records of which Ended Up a Stranger has to be the pinnacle.
1 Lazarus Heart 5:19
2 Radiant 4:28
3 Life: The Movie 7:14
4 More Heat Than Light 6:37
5 Fallen Down Moon 4:34
6 See It in the Dark 3:45
7 Mary Edwards 4:45
8 Lest We Forget 4:21
9 Winslow Place 5:38
10 Cul-de-Sac 4:14
11 Incidento 0:56
12 Climb 4:01
13 Ended Up a Stranger 8:32
Issued as Glitterhouse GRCD538 in October 2001