Monday, July 21, 2008

The Walkmen

The Walkmen are hard to pin down.

They debuted with a low-key album called Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, which was a critical success, but failed to launch the band into the spotlight the way that debut albums from bands like Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes and Vampire Weekend have. Other than "We've Been Had" being featured in a Saturn car commercial, I'm not sure anyone knew the album existed. Regardless, EWPTLMIG was drenched in wintry jingle bells and whip-fast distorted guitars with Hamilton Leithauser's Dylanesque vocals connecting the sparse dots of the album together. On EWPTLMIG, one thing was clear, The Walkmen had a big and unique sound that was going to make or break them.

The Walkmen did eventually get on the map with their sophomore album, Bows + Arrows, and even landed a gig on the Fox show, The O.C. More of a single-oriented album, Bows + Arrows featured tracks like "The Rat", "Little House of Savages", "The North Pole" and "Thinking of a Dream" that set themselves apart from the rest of the album. And while the Rolling Stone initially dissed it, pretty much ever other musical critic with a brain praised it as one of the best albums of 2004 and the high-water mark for the band thus far, and rightfully so. With B+A, the Walkmen had arrived and everyone took notice.

After B+A, the Walkmen knew they needed to make a change to their sound to avoid becoming redundant the way that The Strokes keep seeming to make the same record with each album. So on 2006's A Hundred Miles Off, band members shuffled instruments and added some horns to their sonic portfolio. The result was a mixed bag of hits and misses. The first single, "Louisiana", could be their best single yet, and other tracks like "All Hands and the Cook" and "Good's for You is Good for Me" rose above a somewhat middling third album featuring loud and unorganized punk melodies and somewhat uninspired lyrics. Still a decent album by today's indie-standards, but The Walkmen have the highest of standards. So A Hundred Miles Off was like a straight-A student handing in a C+ paper. You just knew they could have done better.

Later that year, The Walkmen released a track-by-track cover of the John Lennon/Harry Nilsson Pussycats album, which raised even more questions about the band. While their signature sound allowed them to feel right at home covering songs like The Drifters' "Save the Last Dance", the rest of the album meandered much like the original Pussycats album, and left fans collectively scratching their heads. Were the Walkmen losing their creative drive and becoming a glorified cover band? Or were they trying to kick-start a process that had worn a little thin by going back to simple melodies and lyrics?

The band continued touring in between albums, although their live shows had become tedious and noisy. I've seen them three different times, and each time the band seemed to get lazier with short and messy sets becoming a common occurrence. The last Walkmen show I attended sounded like an orchestra warming up more than anything else. The opening act was White Rabbits, and they blew them off the stage with more energy and a clearer goal of what they wanted to do. And as I left that show I wondered, will the Walkmen be able to come back from this? I had my doubts.

About a year later, the band announced the release of their fifth album (fourth original). With a title like You & Me, it sounded more intimate and more focused than anything else they've done, as previous album titles have been vague at best. Their press releases also told of a desire to return to classic melodies and vocals. They mentioned Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. So it was clear they were setting the bar high for themselves.

After getting my hands on an advance copy of You & Me, I can tell you, The Walkmen have rediscovered what works for them and Y&M is their most focused, if not best album, yet. The album, as the title suggests, covers your standard-issue relationship blues, and is sure to be the soundtrack to many a break-up this summer and fall. A sample of some of the lyrics featured on the album are "You are the morning/I am the night", "I kissed her by the window/she covered her face", and "I miss you/I miss you there's no one else/I do... I do."

There are great singles, such as the gradually roaring "In the New Year" and and the waltzy and somber "Red Moon" where Leithauser moans "You shine/Like the steel/On my knife." Deeper tracks like Canadian Girl show off Leithauser's 60's era R&B chops. And while there is clearly a nostalgic feel to You & Me, the signature Walkmen "sound" is still dominant... fuzzy/jangly guitars and drums take up a lot of the soundscape, but the jingle bells seem to have been replaced by horns. No complaints here.

So the lofty press release was spot on. The Walkmen met and surpassed the high goals they set for themselves. Many songs hearken back to 60's rock with simple melodies, vocals, paint brush drums, echoes of calypso music and booming bass lines. I think the band has spent as much time watching Walk the Line as I have, and are determined to bring back the Rock-A-Billy sound with a vengeance. It's because of this old-is-new approach, You & Me returns The Walkmen to the forefront of today's indie scene.

Once again, the Walkmen know who they are and what they want to do, and people will be forced to take notice.

ALBUM SCORE: **** (out of ****)
BEST TRACK(S): Red Moon, Canadian Girl, In the New Year
SEE THEM LIVE?: They seem to have found some easy-to-play melodies, so their concerts shouldn't be disorganized anymore. Hell to the yes!

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