Last train outta Euston
Part one, from Chad Walls’ An Overnight Low
Chad Walls is a guy who’s still dedicated to the album format. Like Zach Jones and his Days, he wants to tell you a story. It’s just that he’s decided to use a group of songs with which to do it.
As a narrative format, of course, the album lags behind the novel and the film, and it requires a bit more attention than either. Words are sort of important to stories, especially when you don’t have pictures, and the words of songs are meted out in phrases and abstracts. Sometimes with vocal delivery that makes them hard to make out. What is like a little movie to Zach Jones might be more of a general emotional impression to you. Like watching a movie on the bus to Boston while you’re listening to your own music and with the screen three seats up.
You get the general idea.
With Euston, Walls is writing and performing as the project An Overnight Low, for which he’s put together a live version and which involved a number of contributions from local session players gathered by Jonathan Wyman. And Euston is just the first album in a three-part project he’s got all mapped out, and much of it completed, documenting bits and pieces of his stay in Manchester, England, while he took three years to get a doctorate.
The ensuing work isn’t quite as cerebral as all that sounds, though. Walls is a pop-music guy and has been since he was writing songs with the boys in the Frotus Caper back in 2001. Thus, he tells his stories in sharp, three-minute chapters. The 10 songs on this first record are all done in less than 30 minutes.
He’s not nearly as manic and upbeat as the Frotus often found themselves, though. With an acoustic guitar strum as foundation, they are mostly more subdued. There is an alt-country weariness to much of it, fueled by the kind of nostalgia that can be induced by sifting through the detritus of three years abroad.
This is encapsulated most succinctly in “Terminal B,” a two-minute, transitional tune that’s just Walls, an acoustic guitar, and sparingly administered feedback. Like “Skyway” on the Replacements Pleased to Meet Me, your attention is drawn by the sparseness as Walls contemplates “songs on the backs of tickets” and the meaningless phrases of traveling: “Enjoy your stay, or welcome back.”
It’s the same kind of emotional impact as delivered by the album’s true standout, “London,” a tale of fleeting friendship and lives unraveling. The vocals are some of the highest on the album, making everything feel insistent and important, and Holly Nunan’s backing vocals weave behind the chorus – “least I remember it that way” – to emphasize the vapidity of the interaction.
She’s heard he’s been to London (no, it was Manchester, thanks), “how have you been? I think I lost your number.” Ouch. Were we close, once? It’s a truly arresting song, to make you think of those friends you were closest to, but don’t really have much in common with anymore.
Such are the songs that come with age and experience. Walls is no spring chicken anymore, and so songs like “The Artists in the Wrong World” have the benefit of perspective, of looking back. They also have the benefit of a lifetime of playing around with the song form, and so while you’re often expecting verse-chorus-verse-bridge, there are enough minor deviations to keep you interested.
That also means they can be pretty touchy-feely. “Halley’s Comet,” full of tambourine in the right channel, echoing backing vocals, and lots of splash cymbal late, is rife with foundational sentiment: “This is the place for me.” Same with “Sleeper,” which has its own echoing piece – “I’m not alone/ I am alone” – and closes with a somewhat mysterious repetition of “I don’t want to celebrate the Fourth of July yet.”
That’s what this album is about, though. Those life demarcations: weddings, funerals, holidays, meetings, and departures.
Like “Goodnight, Portland,” the most rock piece here, with a killer opening – “she’s just a first-draft drinker/ Who penned a paperback” – and a finish dripping with atmosphere and kick drum. The chiming electric guitar in the middle is like a second-hand ticking off time as rounds come and go at the bar, people and places come and go through your life.
Still, “that’s better than anything on the radio/ That’s better than anything underground.”