Landed... or Still Grounded?
Peter Walker’s story is the kind that millions of aspiring rock stars waste their days dreaming about. After playing in numerous bands while schlepping through college, Walker moved to San Francisco, rented a recording space with a buddy, and began recording demos. You might say Walker was making the most of a prolonged adolescence, the period in every man’s life when he indulges his rock star fantasy and actually believes he’ll hit the big time. In Walker’s case, however, the story took a rather fortunate turn. Producer Joe Chicarelli, who’s worked with such acts as Frank Zappa and U2, stumbled upon Walker’s demo and decided to record his debut. Oh, there’s one other small detail—Chicarelli lined up Jay Bennett (Wilco), Justin Meldal-Johnson (Beck), and Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.) as Walker’s backing band. How’s that for luck?
With such a glamorous story behind Walker’s first release, Landed, you’d expect a landmark debut, the kind of LP described by the adjective ‘seminal’ (we critics love that word). The result, however, is not quite as fascinating as the tale. The album is far from bad, but just as far from great. Rather than sounding like three stellar musicians inspired by a passionate leader, this album sounds like three guys trying to help another guy out by adding some flourishes to his songs. Limited by the elementary song structures, however, Walker’s backing band cannot breathe sufficient gusto into the music.
The shortcomings are apparent from the first song, “I’m Through”. Beginning with a simple chord progression, the song gains additional layers of instrumentation as it progresses, but lacks a solid hook. While the melody is pleasant and relaxing, one gets the feeling the big payoff is always just out of reach. This, of course, is frustrating, particularly because Walker sounds sincere, which is a rather rare attribute in today’s music scene. Moreover, his voice is generally serviceable, sounding at turns willowy and rough, but his talent for singing cannot disguise the bland structure of the material.
The lack of hooks plagues the majority of the album. “I Came Around” begins in a similar fashion—with a simple chord structure—and builds to nothing much. The song plods on, one basic chord after the next, with the backing band supplying a routine beat and playing the occasional fill. “Gone Away” tries to sound surreal and haunting, but only succeeds at droning, despite a warbling saxophone solo. If Walker were deliberately being minimalist to evoke a mood, perhaps you could forgive him. Instead, the songs come off as rough drafts rather than finished products. Then it hits you—this is, in effect, an indie rock supergroup, the underground’s answer to Asia, right? With such superb musicians in tow, shouldn’t some sparks be igniting here? Where’s the Jay Bennett that drowned Summerteeth in Spectorian regalia? Couldn’t he have added some hooks, some Lennon/McCartney backing vocals, some excitement?
Not only is the music bland, but some of the lyrics are syrupy to the point of embarrassment. In “Different Kind of Romance”, Walker sings, “I want to have my hands tied / I want to do the dance / Nobody said it was gonna be easy / In our different kind of romance”. Goodness, just reading that is humiliating. Is Jon Bon Jovi teaching lyric writing classes? This abortion of a lyric comes after Walker refers to Trouble as a place—you know, like a town. Trouble as a geographical location? Note to aspiring songwriters: handle symbolism with caution.
Many of the songs here sound like the work of a guy who has a knack for singing but knows too few chords to reproduce the sound in his head. Indeed, Walker practically says as much on his website biography. Speaking of his role in his first band, Jack Tripper, Walker states, “All I really knew were barre chords, but I started to believe I had more to offer.” That, after all the listening, may be the best way to sum up this album. One gets the impression Walker might have the goods, but just never delivers. Hopefully his next effort will be more realized. For now, however, Landed just never takes flight.