Chris Eckman – A Janela

Chris Eckman - A JanelaWithout any documentation to back me up, I imagine the impetus for Chris Eckman recording this first solo album had nothing to do with breaking free from a paradigm, or escaping expectations. Being the principle songwriter for the Walkabouts, what most people expect from that band is Chris Eckman songs, and throughout their career the Walkabouts have had an evolving aesthetic. It always points in the direction of their alt-country-rock* roots but is never limited by it. Nor does it sound like a “I’m sick of arguing how we ought to do things, I’m going my own way” sort of thing, like so many solo albums are. After all, A Janela, his solo debut, did not signal the break up of the Walkabouts. While they haven’t been releasing as frequently in the new century (four albums, not counting eps and several compilations), they are still very much active.

* I don’t know what’s worse – how stupid that fake genre sounds (alt-country-rock, sheesh) or that it’s actually a pretty accurate description of what goes on with the Walkabouts.

So why A Janela? Unfortunately, I must resort to more solo album cliche. The songwriting on this album feels more intimate and personal than the songs on a Walkabouts disc**. For the most part they are quieter, with as much piano as guitar instrumentation. The lyrics have the sense of being reflective, not as demonstrative or narrative-driven as Walkabouts songs.

** This is not to say that I necessarily think the songs are, in fact, more personal. How would I know? It is the feeling, not the fact, the music conveys.

Which isn’t to say that nothing rocks, or that nothing here sounds like it could have fit on Setting the Woods on Fire. “Ghostface” seems to be a paean to getting drunk and going to bad parts of town (certainly a Walkabouts-friendly theme). “The Other Side of Town” sounds so much like a Walkabouts second-to-last track that it’s surprising to find the album still has two places to go afterwards.

And then there are the instrumentals. These are short, not terribly melodic, and while I like them as mood pieces, they seem to be auditioning for movie soundtracks than they are something to be listened to on their own.

In other words, this is a bit of a grab-bag of an album. A lot like any solo album that is not going to be turned into a full gig. It has moments. It is substantially different enough from a Walkabouts album to be interesting, if not an everyday listen.

  •  The instrumentals are “A Janela,” “Rua Augusta” (which has a lot of street sounds, and has an interesting found-sound feeling) and “Sonhos E Sombras” (which starts out as the best of them, with a real Doomjazz feeling, but then has a disappointing Answering Machine sound sample that feels like it has been done before – many times).
  • The most Walkaboutsy tunes are “Intrusions,” “The Drag,” “Ghostface,” “The Other Side of Night,” and “20 Minutes On a Train.” The other tracks have more than just a tinge of the European flavor (pianos, strings, less rootsy instrumentation) that the Walkabouts adopted on a lot of their releases of the late 90s and early 00s.

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