Agitated Atmosphere: The Walkabouts – Devil’s Road & Nighttown

As major labels continue to exist behind the times, artists and labels with little capital and lesser reputations are producing some of the most innovative, interesting, and inspiring music. Whether it’s creating a new niche in digital technology or looking to once obsolete formats, Agitated Atmosphere hopes to pull back the curtain on a wealth of sights and sound from luminaries such as The Walkabouts.

The Walkabouts cast a big shadow on Seattle, even if theirs is a name unfamiliar and a story often forgotten amid the tales of how Seattle became what we know it as today. The abridged version is all I can afford: founded in 1984, signed to grunge heavy Sub Pop with their debut released in ‘89, left the label in ’92, and found themselves cast into the throes of in Euro label Glitterhouse with a brief excursion on Virgin in the mid ‘90s.

Devil’s Road (1996) and Nighttown (1997) are the lone artifacts of the band’s major label dalliance, now being reissued. It’s not so much the content of either album that is revolutionary in its sound but rather the era in which they were recorded and released.

As I said, the Walkabouts are a forgotten piece of Seattle’s music scene as it is currently perceived outside of the Northwest. Ironically, it can be said that the band’s Sub Pop signing was also some foresight by the preeminent grunge label of the day, understanding that one trend gives way to the next. The Walkabouts were pure independent rock (by the loose association given to the genre in the early ‘00s) and it’s no more on display than on Devil’s Road and Nighttown. Both straddle a line between the complex ideals of their Seattle beginnings but the production and song structure are far more in tune with current proclivities of modern non-mainstream rock). These are the slower songs of a fledging R.E.M. while also the swansongs of that same make up (think Reckoning colliding with “E-bow the Letter”).

Despite being out of place for much of their youth, the Walkabouts were really projecting a music of the future: a crafty blend of pop, rock, and soul that is now at the heart of a new popular movement in music and surprisingly, was once the renewed backbone of the Sub Pop roster as it reinvented itself in the early ‘00s.

These two albums are a great time capsule into a band expanding on those ideas in a time when very few bands were finding any success in a genre in the middle of alternative and AOR. These are not songs to set beside an adult contemporary station the way “Butterfly Kisses” or “In the House of Stone and Light” did, nor were they edgy or distorted enough to be on your fly-by-night X-radio station. Devil’s Road begins experimenting with orchestration and ideas bigger than three chords and a choral hook. Those ideas grow larger with Nighttown (pronounced loudly with opener “Follow Me an Angel”), quietly giving life to the expanded genre of rock that wasn’t beholden to the aggressiveness of alternative music nor was it trying to appeal to Baby Boomers who were still bashful of keeping their radio dial affixed to the local classic rock station.

Devil’s Road and Nighttown are far from experimental in practice, but in theory and placed in the era in which the Walkabouts were founded and began putting these ideas to record, these two deluxe reissues are proud monuments to the bands in Seattle who did not follow the path of Nirvana, Mudhoney, Tad, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, et. al. There were many bands with their own visions stunted by the singular focus on one kind of music.

It’s funny how history seems to repeat itself…

Justin Spicer is a freelance journalist whose work can be viewed at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

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