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Scott Walker

March 9, 2010

The sun is shining, the trails are finally starting to dry, and the hiss and distortion of Doom Metal, Doom Noise, and general doom in the shop speakers is finally giving way to the lilting harpistry of Joanna Newsom and the buttery baritone of Bill Callahan.  Lush and sunny spring time music.  The somber, sometimes dark, lyrical undertones of artists like these is what keeps their music from being totally irrelevant pap a la Pat Boone or the Boston Pops Orchestra, but the major tonalities and orchestral glissandos make the music feel so seasonally appropriate.

The grandfather of this twisted popsy schmaltz is the immortal Scott Walker.  Originally a member of The Walker Brothers (none of whom were related nor named Walker), Scott first tasted international pop stardom during the “British Invasion” through a technicality.  The Walker Brothers were an American pop vocal group who were moderately popular in Great Britain, but because no one in the States had ever heard of them they were able to ride the coattails of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones all the way to American Top 40 radio.

After a few years in the limelight, Scott began to weary of the bubblegum circuit and struck out on his own.  He quickly released four albums in four years: Scott 1, 2, 3, and 4 in ’67, ’68, ’69, and ’70 (just like Led Zep).  His solo work sounded very similar to his work with The Walker Brothers, but the lyrics were no longer limited to love and lost love.  Scott’s songs were built around dense imagery and scenes of despair, violence, and confusion closely modeled on the work of his idol, Jacques Brel.  Many of his best songs from the first two albums were masterful English translations of Jacques Brel standards.

The orchestration of these first four albums is grotesquely cheerful, and when coupled with Scott’s crooning vibrato describing scenes of misery and despair, the result is puzzling.  Unraveling the puzzle is what makes the music worthwhile.  In many ways this music is far more disturbing than doomed out lyrics set against a harsh sonic background because when backed with the saccharine orchestration that permeates these recordings, Scott sounds almost gleeful about all the chaos in the world.

Unfortunately, Scott Walker followed an increasingly “artsy” path throughout the 70’s and into the modern day.  His music began to sound more like his lyrics and it just devolved into dark pap.  Totally predictable and boring.  A recently released documentary explores the span of his career and follows him into the studio in the modern day.  The film is well made, but the modern era Scott Walker footage is groan-inducing.  There is one scene in particular of Scott in a sound booth directing someone about the most artistically appropriate way to punch a side of beef.  Seriously.  He’s not even punching the meat himself, he’s telling someone else how to do it.  Ridiculous.

Regardless, the first four albums are worth a good, loud listen.  Long live spring and the exuberant darkness of Scott Walker.

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