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Pop goes the heart

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding
By Lucinda Breeding

Lukens’ musical foray pays off in fresh, not-so-folk album

Walker Lukens’ latest record, the warmly received Devoted, was born from the Austin artist’s utter exhaustion with his ride on the indie-folk train.

“I got tired of the same scenario,” Lukens said as he zoomed through Grand Junction, Colorado, on tour. “I realized I’m just playing before this room full of drunk — or buzzed — people while I do this autobiographical music. You’re trying to make yourself heard and I was just kind of rolling my eyes at myself.”

Lukens said he moved toward pop, well aware that it was a move that might make purists and music snobs wince.

“No musician wants to play pop-rock,” he said. “You see musicians trying to avoid the whole ‘pop’ deal when they talk about their music. They’ll go, ‘I play psych rock,’ or talk about how they’re doing post-punk. I’m like, ‘Dude, you play pop-rock.’”

Devoted embraces the easy musicality of pop. “Dear, Dear Someone” harkens back to Roy Orbison’s smart melodies — the whole song is singable in the best way. Sweet, swingy verses build into the kind of guitar bridge that Buddy Holly might have written for a doo-wop outfit. “Lover” shines, thanks to Lukens’ keen sense of editing. Using a vocal loop recorder, Lukens is his own percussion section with breathy, rolling R’s and a punch of exhalation. He layers a solid blues melody line over harmonies he created by singing all the harmonies in “ohs” before trailing off with a primal, wolfish wail.

“Drunk Logic” is Lukens taking a page from Mick Jagger’s big book of blues-rock. He sits with the ghosts of the Delta, all while asking a wished-for lover to come to his side. Instead of imitating, Lukens just commits his white-boy pipes to the music and sings from the heart. “Kindle Your Fire (Oprah Voice)” sounds nearly African, with the jubilant percussion and chorus-style harmonies.

Lukens said he had a different collection of music ready before he left New York (his digs before returning to Texas) touring with another band. When he finished the tour, Lukens said he scrapped that batch and turned his attention to some chords he’d been putting together.

“I didn’t want to do anything that could be called folk,” he said. “I went to my part-time teaching job and wrote and recorded every day. I found an engineer that wasn’t afraid to record in an apartment. It didn’t exactly work — you can still hear some folk elements. But I did some basic pop stuff. I wanted to have a new experience.”

Lukens said he was surprised that Devoted emerged with blues and R&B elements. The vocal loop recorder — a technology that has surged in popularity — opened Lukens’ eyes to songwriting away from the guitar. He was especially delighted to discover how “human sounds” he normally didn’t think of as being musical could be turned into tones and beats. If he hadn’t tired of the folk conventions, he might not have broached songwriting with just his voice.

“I had no idea what kind of music I’d be playing,” he said. “I’ve been kind of making music on my own. It’s really exciting to me to record with a band. You can really flesh things out more with a band. You can listen to something and if you’re like, ‘Why not add strings?’ you can add them. There’s now a much more firm kind of base.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.