The Walker Brothers LPs hark back to the early days of albums as delivery vehicles for singles padded out with copious filler intended to bilk the public into paying LP prices for single quality.
The Walker Brothers never fit in to their time. Sonically, their hauntological torch songs were as radically different from ossifying standards as they were the emerging psychedelic movement. Scott Walker’s ominous baritone in particular gave the group’s sound a strange sense of displacement, as if they were making music unstuck from time and making things that were closer in arrangement to pre-rock orchestral pop but in spirit to the most outré work of the 1960s. Managerially speaking, however, the trio suffered many of the artistic limitations that acts like the Beatles and Dylan had shaken up years ago. This was most evident in the manner in which the group recorded albums. Where new pop groups were penning concept albums and sequencing tracklists with careful intent to make artistic statements, the Walker Brothers LPs hark back to the early days of albums as delivery vehicles for singles padded out with copious filler intended to bilk the public into paying LP prices for single quality.
Portrait, the group’s second record, keenly embodies this ancient approach. Only released in the UK, where the group had surprisingly exploded as the unlikeliest teenybopper act of the decade, the album not only bursts at the seams with extraneous, uninspired material but outright omits the hits that made Scott, Gary and John such a cult act across the Pond. Instead, there are tracks like a cover of Louis Armstrong’s “Just for a Thrill” that is all saccharine crooning and nondescript string and piano background. Most of the album, in fact, is covers, and few do anything unique with the material. The Gershwins’ “Summertime” is an exception, a ghostly rendering which opens with wafting, detached harmonies before the singers break out into individual, reverb-soaked pleas, and a breakout saxophone solo adds a jolt of personality to a record sorely lacking in it.
Elsewhere, though, the group trudges through the material. The jazz standard “Old Folks” drags along on a broken guitar riff as Scott drones through its folksy lyrics. “Where’s the Girl” jerks forward on a childlike, halting pattern, and only Scott’s crystalline baritone radiates anything like soul. Even the more energetic run-through of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” with its marching percussion and sunny, open tuning feels at best like an interesting curio than the confident lead-off of the album’s second side. It figures that the album’s two singles, “In My Room” and “Saturday’s Child,” are the first two tracks of the LP, and admittedly they are strong stuff. The former is prime baroque pop that uses booming timpani and spaghetti western blurts of trumpet to create a widescreen fantasia of introverted imagination as Scott traverses an epic sojourn of the mind without leaving his bed. The latter is charged surf rock that is one of Scott’s two songwriting credits on the record. His vocals here are as rubbery as the loose-stringed riff, and this is the album’s only track that sounds primed and ready for classic AM radio.
Other than those tracks and “Summertime,” Portrait’s only other bright spots are Scott’s plaintive delivery in the otherwise forgettable “Hurting Each Other” and the strong closer “No Sad Songs for Me.” A brittle, devastated ballad, the track closes the record on a note of total defeat at a time when pop was emotionally ascendant, and it epitomizes the best of the group’s drained, defeated music. Such songs make Portrait worth hearing for fans of Scott Walker who want to hear how he started his career as an off-beat pop star, but the lack of defining non-album singles like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” renders the LP as little more than an obscure historical footnote justifiably forgotten compared to the collections of the Walker Brothers’ modest catalog of truly enduring material.