If you've followed Justin Walton's work in the likes of Dreadnaught and the old Actual Size (the first sticker of a Portland band I threw on my deck when I got here back in 1999), you'll probably be comfortable with the scope and variety of his sprawling debut solo release, It Takes a Toll. At 19 tracks, of many genres, lengths, and arrangements, it's an ambitious undertaking on the part of Walton and consuming it takes an open-minded listener.
It's an album where there are all kinds of 20-second bursts that make you sit up and listen extra closely, but not necessarily single songs that you just have to listen to over and over again.
Basically, there aren't a lot of sing-along choruses, or straight vocals of any kind. They're often reverbed or whispered or hidden and mixed to the back ("Longer," a folk rocker, is a notable exception). Where they're pretty naked, Walton's delivery is reserved, without a lot of belting it out, which makes this feel mostly like an instrumental production, even when there are plenty of vocals, with a lot of Steely Dan and Zappa and jam sounds, but no big Steely/Zappa/jam choruses.
The emphasis and attention is on the various instrumental performances, which are pretty spectacular at times. And that's all the more remarkable considering Walton plays everything — guitar, bass, drums, piano/keys, even saxophone. It's one thing to go all Prince and play all the tracks, laying down basic rhythm with the drums and bass and throwing in some keyboard chords while you wail on the guitar. It's another to competently — no, expertly — solo with all of said instruments. It's impressive.
Maybe my favorite is the instrumental "Old Song," which is probably just that: a song Walton penned some time ago, a collection of pretty little riffs on guitar, supported by underlying piano, that's just a minute and a half long. It's tight, lyrical, and energizing. Much of the rest of the disc is a bit ponderous for my taste (maybe I'm just feeling cynical), but ought to appeal strongly to other musicians and those of you tired of the indie-pop and singer-songwriter movements and looking to be challenged.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IT TAKES A TOLL | Released by Justin Walton | at the Liberal Cup, in Hallowell | Jan 12 | justinwalton.com