The Walkabouts have been making records for years, many of which haven’t been released in America, but which have earned them a substantial following in Europe. This EP, a “tribute to the artistry of Nina Simone”, was partially recorded in Ljubliana, Slovenia, where their fan base is likely larger than it is in most American cities. Though the Walkabouts are from Seattle and emerged in the late ‘80s, they are not at all grungy, and though they are sometimes labeled alt-country, their sound these days has more to do with dirge-masters Low and the Tindersticks. It is wearying, deliberate, difficult music in many ways, not the least of which is the amount of attention it requires to stay with it and become transfixed with the subtle variations by which it achieves its effects. It tends to venture into emotional territory too dark and thicketed for casual listeners; it provokes troubled contemplation where other music provides more straightforward entertainment. Life is short, and many people may have many good reasons for not wanting to invest the time required to let elegiac songs such as one hears on Slow Days with Nina unfold, but those who do are likely to feel their time wasn’t wasted.
In his liner notes to this collection, band member Chris Eckman is quick to explain that no attempt has been made to emulate Nina Simone while covering five of the songs she rendered definitively. Instead, he explains that these songs should be considered as “meditations” on the effects Simone can have on a listener. And indeed, these sound nothing like anything Simone recorded, they are not inflected in the least by jazz, folk, pop, or even the trenchant spirit of protest that made Simone classics like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Pirate Jenny” so inflammatory. Instead, these dour, methodical tracks, many consisting of little more an echoing guitar (or piano) and a voice, inhabit their own musical universe, which reject dynamism in favor of a precise repetitiousness which forces listeners to meditate upon every tiny variation the band has seen fit to incorporate.
Silence is employed as an instrument, generating more tension than a discordant or atonal change ever could; on the opening track, “The Desperate Ones”, it’s a palpable force. And the total lack of percussion on the record is compensated for by the rigorous refusal to syncopate much of anything, establishing an unmistakable lulling cadence that’s part lullaby, part death march. This is especially true of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, one which Eckman’s distorted voice sounds like the hospital bed croak of an emphysemiac readying himself for the big sleep. The songs sung by Carla Torgerson are marginally sunnier, but you’re not likely to be cranking them on the way to the beach or anything. They are ominous and slightly claustrophobic, full of a floating dread that seems to infuse the lyrics with occult meaning, something terrible and apocalyptic that she understands but that we only hear traces of in her voice. “Lilac Wine” which reads like a love song if you scan the printed lyrics, but in Torgerson’s hands it sounds as though some sort of Wiccan ritual is being performed. But the spell is being prepared for someone else, and not for us; we can listen in, but we ultimately feel excluded.
If one’s not transported by the Walkabouts minimalist strategy, one is apt to grow bored and uncomfortable. Listening to this album made me feel like I was staring at one of those magic-eye posters that have an image that, for people gifted with the right kind of visual acuity, suddenly leaps into three-dimensions. I can’t ever see those images—and I can’t ever feel anything while listening to this, or to music like it, even while I respect intellectually what they are trying to do and am in awe of their discipline they have harnessed in order to produce it. But that same discipline gives it a forbidding sternness, a frigidity that finally freezes me through and through. The music never assumes three dimensions for me, the way Nina Simone’s does the minute she opens her mouth.