in Retrospecticus

You may not have noticed, but The Walkmen have very quietly become one of the more consistently great bands of the last decade or so.  And it’s because of this consistency that I’ve been pretty excited about the release of their latest album, Heaven.  So now let’s take a look back at the career so far of these downtrodden indie rockers.  Also, I’ll just preface this by saying that pretty much every Walkmen album took at least a little while to grow on me.  I guess they’re just that kind of band.

Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone (2002)

The early 00’s seemed to be a golden era for New York bands that rode a steady wave of critical buzz that quickly led to moderate mainstream success (i.e. The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, etc).  NYC’s The Walkmen definitely seemed to find themselves in a similar position with their first album, though their success didn’t quite equal that of the bands I just mentioned.  I suppose this comes from the fact that the Walkmen have never been the flashiest band in the world, but they’ve always seemed to be able to put out rock music that’s often very classic in approach, but also manages to be pretty modern and unorthodox at the same time.

Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone is probably the band’s most experimental album, as it boasts the longest running time of any Walkmen album and sees the band complimenting a lot of their spare instrumentation with a lot of ambience and weird sonic textures.  But you’ve still got a lot of The Walkmen’s musical staples already in place: the angular guitar work, the dissonant upright piano, and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s high-pitched vocals that always seem to skirt the line between utter frustation and world-weariness.  This album’s a little hard to give a definitive star rating just because it’s so wildly uneven, and yet there are moments on the album where The Walkmen really hit on something magnificent, such as “We’ve Been Had”, a delicate number that wonderfully sums up what is to be in your early twenties.

Favorite Tracks: “Wake Up”, “We’ve Been Had”, “That’s the Punch Line”

Bows + Arrows (2004)

In a lot of ways, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone was really just the warm-up for this album.  The Walkmen took the miserabalist rock sound that they where tinkering with on their debut, and made it into something bigger and bolder, while exuding a potent balance of precision and fury.  Of course the song that would embody this would have to be The Walkmen’s signature song “The Rat”, a violent blast of vitriol and self-loathing that I would say stands as one of the more exhilarating rock songs of the 00’s.

The guitars definitely seem to be more prevelant here and they’re often more loud and distorted than on any other Walkmen album, and it’s this style of unhinged guitars combined with Matt Barick’s cacouphonous drums that seem to propel songs like “Little House Of Savages” and “Thinking Of A Dream I Had”.  Though for all album’s aggressive moments, it’s still got plenty of the more downbeat booze-soaked ballads like “Hang On, Siobhan” that The Walkmen seem to pull off so effortlessly.  Though I’m not sure that it necessarily makes it the best, Bows + Arrows is probably the most well-rounded Walkmen album and a perfect example of why these guys are much more than just a “singles band” as some have often written them off as.

Favorite Tracks: “The Rat”, “Little House Of Savages”, “New Year’s Eve”

A Hundred Miles Off (2006)

This seems to be the forgotten album in The Walkmen’s discography and I guess I can kind of understand why.  I think The Walkmen have remained interesting throughout the years because with each album they seem to focus on one or two really compelling aspects of their distinct sound.  However, they didn’t really do that with A Hundered Miles Off, which saw them trying out a bunch of different things, some of which are interesting and some of which are just kind of middling.

Generally there’s a bit more polished sound on A Hundred Miles Off, with the occasional horn arrangements thrown in to a few songs, which points the way to some of the brass-based sounds that they’d explore on further albums.  There are definitely some very good songs here, which are mostly mid-tempo rockers like “Brandy Alexander” that see the band transitioning into the more subdued sounds of their more recent albums.  And that’s pretty much what A Hundred Miles Off is in the end, a transitional album, albeit a still pretty good one.

Favorite Tracks: “Louisiana”, “Lost In Boston”, “Brandy Alexander”

“Pussy Cats” Starring The Walkmen (2006)

I suppose every band deserves to make a “WTF album”, and this is certainly The Walkmen’s, since I’m not really sure why “Pussy Cats” Starring The Walkmen exists.  You see, The Walkmen decided to record a track for track cover of the Harry Nilsson album Pussy Cats that the band recorded in about ten days and decided to release for people to actually spend money on.  I’ve just been getting into Harry Nilsson recently and haven’t heard his Pussy Cats, so I can’t really say how it compares to the original, but this version is undeniably the strangest Walkmen album as they don’t really sound much like their usual selves.  Really they just sound like they’re having fun and not taking themselves too seriously for a change, but unfortunately the song for song cover gimmick just ends up feeling kind of emotionally hollow in the end.

Favorite Tracks: “Many Rivers To Cross”, “All My Life”

You & Me (2008)

After the one-two punch of mild disappointment that was A Hundered Miles Off and “Pussy Cats”, it seemed reasonable to write The Walkmen off as a band who’s best days were behind them, but You & Me proved that that was simply not the case.  There’s always been an element of despair to The Walkmen’s sound, but You & Me is probably the most insular and darkest of their albums.  The guitars are often much muddier this time around, while the arrangements often waver between the atmospheric sparseness that marks songs like “Red Moon”, and a piercing grandiosity that’s seen on tracks like “On The Water” or “Postcards From Tiny Islands”.

You & Me also features what is probably my favorite Walkmen song with “In The New Year”, which might be the album’s most optimistic moment, and another example of how these guys can exude the confusion and frustation of being in your 20’s like no other.  So with it’s messy emotions and stark production, You & Me might not be the most exciting Walkmen album, but it definitely features some of their most affecting work to date.

Favorite Tracks: “In The New Year”, “Red Moon”, “The Blue Route”

Lisbon (2010)

It’s kind of weird that You & Me marked the darkest endeavor in The Walkmen’s catalogue, since their next is probably their warmest and most inviting one so far.  Right off from the album’s opener “Juveniles”, you can tell that these guys have grown a little more content with taking it slow and basking in the joys of bouncing off of each other musically.  And yet at the same time, Lisbon still features one of The Walkmen’s hall of fame singles with “Angela Surf City”, a track that shows that these guys can still sound as fast and furious as any indie band around.

Minimalism seems to be the guiding principle of this album, as there seems to be a lot of tracks where you could swear the songs where being propelled only by Paul Maroon’s guitar and Hamilton Leithauser’s vocals, which usually isn’t true, but certainly feels like it.  This approach I think works beautifully, as it shows a band with an unbelievable amount of restraint and precision, and yet one that’s still tuneful enough to fill their songs with just enough memorable melodies to keep you listening again and again.  Though Lisbon certainly does have it’s more buoyant moments, there still is a level of doubt and uncertainty, though it seems that from what I’ve heard, their latest album will be a more optimistic one from these once angry young men.

Favorite Tracks: “Juveniles”, “Angela Surf City”, “All My Great Designs”