The Walkabouts – Setting the Woods on Fire

SettingtheWoodsOnFireSetting the Woods on Fire shares a title with a Hank Williams song, but despite the obvious connection it’s hard to say the album was named after the song. After all, that’s one of Hank’s fast ones (and he said he only wrote two songs: a fast one and a slow one) about having a wild party. There, Setting the Woods on Fire is a metaphor. Here, it is a literal truth. This is a collection of hard-hitting more-rock-than-country tunes, some literally about setting fire to the past to try and overcome it.

Sonically, the music is not all that different from New West Motel. There’s more piano than organ here, and it’s brought further forward in the mix. The tone is superficially similar to New West Motel, but the words are more desperate (which ain’t easy to do, since that album was filled with murderin’ stones and men getting shot in their motels). It’s a slower burner than NWM, with at least one song so tonally out there (an R&B workout, “Hole In the Mountain”) that it stands so far out from the rest of the album. I have no idea if it is any good. It just doesn’t seem to fit.

Confronting danger and making new amends isn’t possible for the protagonists of all these sad songs. “Up In the Graveyard” typifies the tone. It’s a slow ballad about a man trying to dig up his dad, because he didn’t want to be buried next to the mill where he wasted his life. It doesn’t work out.

What sets the Walkabouts apart from other alt-country-rock types is that their work never seems specifically mine the past, yet it sits comfortably within the idiom. They haven’t reinvented a southern gothic world like 16 Horsepower did, where the banjo and bandoneon are as rock & roll as the electric guitar. The Walkabouts’ work is a next step, and even when they put on the pedal steel for an out and out country tune, the words never fall into the safety net of clever Nashville pablum. They keep their edge, and their smarts:

Never were the main event,
Always played the sideshow tent.
The drunken cowards came to look us over.
Can you promise we did not belong there?
  •  Yet another Walkabouts albums that ends with a killer one-two punch – nobody closes an album and says goodbye like these guys
  • Between this and New West Motel, I’d probably pick the latter. Still, the Walkabouts are one of those bands that, if you like one of their albums, you’re likely to want to pick them all up (even when they go all strings and Europe-y later)
  • Standout tracks for me are “Firetrap,” “Bordertown” (great guitar work on a slow tune), “Old Crow,” and the last two tracks

NAQ (Never Asked Questions)

Don’t all their albums sound the same?

No. Especially on some of their late 90s stuff, where they start to change stuff up. But there’s nothing wrong with the dark country rock sound. Jerk.

Why haven’t they made real inroads in America?

It may be that the vision they’ve clung to (which is an American musical vision) doesn’t resonate. Their lyrics aren’t plain enough for country. Their music might be too murky, or dark, or scorching in its guitar work.

Last word?

From “Promised”:

Promise me the best you know.
And promise me you'll break down slow.
And when you find the nerve to quit,
Pass it 'round and we'll share in it

About Kent Conrad

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