Trail of Stars
First Appeared at The Music Box, October 2000, Volume 7, #10
Written by Michael Karpinski
The Walkabouts are a bit like the mythical Sisyphus — the sad-sack Corinthian king doomed for eternity to roll a boulder up a bluff, only to have gravity and the gods conspire to suck it right back down to the bottom again. In 1993 — with a generous helping hand from the Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, amongst others — The Walkabouts seemed on the brink of a breakthrough with their critically-acclaimed set of covers, titled Satisfied Mind. Yet, just three years later, they have found themselves relegated to the echoless limbo of overseas-only distribution — the music industry equivalent of direct-to-video damnation. That unhappy banishment finally comes to an end with Trail of Stars — The Walkabouts' ninth record — and, almost certainly, their worst.
Even before their temporary exile, The Walkabouts had always been something of a jigsaw enigma. Though all the pieces seemed to be in place — most notably, Carla Torgerson's comely campfire-croon and Chris Eckman's gracefully squalling guitar parts — some intangible yet critical element always seemed to be missing. It was almost as though they were simply too tastefully understated for their own good — a band trapped in the amber of their own constrictively consistent proficiency.
To their credit, The Walkabouts began to inch their way out of their trademark 10,000 Maniacs/Cowboy Junkies complacency with 1996's Devil's Road and 1997's Nighttown — both of which toned down the tempos and imposed a series of sullen string sections. Trail of Stars takes the experimentation a parsec or two farther down the sonic superhighway, but it does so with depressingly diminishing returns. Song titles such as To the Stars and Hightimes would seem to predict at least some small degree of uplift and altitude, but this cumbrous and clumsy craft never even clears the launch-pad. Always more earthy than ethereal, The Walkabouts' determined efforts to penetrate Portishead and Tindersticks' territory ultimately come across forced and untoward. The piano-and-strings-driven Desert Skies and Hightimes' wacka-wacka guitars, understated doo-wop piano, and sad-elephant cello prove that they haven't lost their touch for savvy, tuneful accoutrements. However, On the Day is just plain plodding and ponderous, and though Crime Story takes its musical cues from Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows, it ultimately lacks that signature tune's winningly philosophical combination of cynicism and bewilderment. Further, for all its seductive slow-smolder, album-closer No One the Wiser never quite ignites. Call it a faulty fuse. Call it an unforgiving wind. Call it a frustrating but fitting finish to this glacially-paced bucket of embalming-fluid filler.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus suggests that there may be a sort of glory in scorning even the most futile of fates — that Sisyphus, through his relentless and repetitive efforts at rock rolling, ultimately achieves a dignified, if bittersweet, victory over his Olympian oppressors. Then again, maybe that's just a mortal man's sad rationalization — one intended to distract us from the terrifyingly terminal ticking of our own internal timeclocks. Whatever the case, it seems clear that The Walkabouts have no immediate plans to abandon their boulder or to cease their assault on that steep, unforgiving cliff. And who knows? Maybe someday — some way — they'll actually manage to get that stone to stick.
Trail of Stars is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2000 The Music Box