The Walkabouts – Devil’s Road / Nighttown (deluxe reissues)

Having already done such a dependable job in keeping the bulk of The Walkabouts’ lengthy independently-released catalogue in good curatorial order, Germany’s Glitterhouse label has now finally secured the rights to release expanded versions of the two albums from the band’s brief tenure on Virgin Records.  Out of print for years, 1996’s Devil’s Road and 1997’s Nighttown have often been misunderstood by fans and critics alike, partly due to the distractions of major vs. indie label politics.  These recontextualised editions of the two lost albums should, however, provide the releases with a chance to stand up for themselves once more.

The Walkabouts - Devil's Road

The Walkabouts – Devil’s Road

For those that had belatedly discovered the existence of The Walkabouts through co-lead singer Carla Torgenson’s classic duet appearance on the Tindersticks’ “Travelling Light” in 1995, Devil’s Road was an inviting and easy entry point into the group’s already long artistic journey.  Yet whilst there remains an evident kinship with Tindersticks’ eponymous second album – through its emotive string arrangements (with the Virgin funds stretching to The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra no less), rueful romanticism and a love of Lee Hazlewood – Devil’s Road also feels like a culmination of the creative arc The Walkabouts had been following in the preceding Sub Pop-enabled years.

In fact, Devil’s Road is arguably the quintessential Walkabouts statement; being a go-to record that distills the band’s core vision into a suite of indomitable songs that hold regular fixtures in the band’s live set-lists to this day. Encapsulating themes of love, loss, escapism and redemption throughout, Devil’s Road is a ruralised road-trip mapped out across a landscape of ravishing widescreen orchestral epics led by Torgenson’s stately yet comforting tones (“This Light Will Stay On,” “Rebecca Wild,” and “All For This”); gritty cow-punk-meets-Tom Waits rockers driven by songwriter Chris Eckman’s gravellier vocals and gnarly guitar work, Glenn Slater’s exuberant keyboard-playing and Terri Moeller’s dextrous drumming (“The Stopping-Off Place” and “Fairground Blues”); uplifting country-slanted duets (“Forgiveness Song” and “Cold Eye”); and pared-back atmospheric pieces bearing the hallmarks of producer Victor Van Vugt’s time with Nick Cave (“When Fortune Smiles” and “Christmas Valley”).  Bolstered by a bonus disc of demos and alternate versions, though sadly not contemporary B-sides for true completionist satisfaction, this refreshed edition of Devil’s Road is an essential acquisition for newcomers and long-term followers alike.

The Walkabouts - Nigghtown

The Walkabouts – Nighttown

After the moderate commercial success of Devil’s Road in Continental Europe, Virgin pushed The Walkabouts for a quickly turned around sequel.  Yet whilst the sub-editor troubling Nighttown was delivered to fit a set deadline and made even more obvious use of a bigger studio and guest player budget, the album is a less immediately arresting album in comparison to its predecessor.  Conceptually inspired by a urban rather than rural narrative and leaning towards wider and more European musical influences instead of the band’s Americana roots, Nighttown is a harder affair to unpick than Devil’s Road.  Yet this 2014 rebirth allows the record a new life of its own; given the right listening time and with exposure to the less polished demo versions on the bonus disc.

Hence, Nighttown deploys deeper orchestral layering to yield a slew of prowling nocturnal cinematic songscapes with shades of John Barry, Histoire de Melody Nelson and Scott Walker’s excursions into the Jacques Brel songbook (“Follow Me An Angel,” “Unwind” and “Harbour Lights”) as well as making light forays into Portishead-like trip-hop (“Heartless”) and Germanic space-rock (“Immaculate”).  Yet for all its sonic recalibrations there still remains room for the yearning genre-transcending torch-songs that the band have always excelled at, giving us highlights such as the serene “Slow Red Dawn” and the soaring “Tremble (Goes The Night).”  Ultimately although Nighttown is less a mandatory purchase than Devil’s Road, it’s still a long-player deserving of a belated reappraisal.

Together then, these reissues reintegrate two key entries in The Walkabouts’ broad and illustrious discography with much deserved care and respect.