Friday, October 31, 2008

Those Haunting Walkmen

Something odd, one might say spooky, happened to me a week or so ago. See, this summer good friend Wobs started dishing me discs byThe Walkmen starting with Bows and Arrows and A Hundred Miles Off. And truth be told I wasn't getting it . . . at all. I kept wanting lead singer Hamilton Leithauser to drop the vocals down an octave from the high-pitched wailing and was really wishing that the guitars would occasionally chill out with all the electric strumming going on--and yet I kept listening off and on.

Then this You & Me came out this year and I was hearing a track here and there and reading favorable reviews and thought that perhaps this was the album that would unlock these boys for me. Sure enough my source brought me that disc as well and I started listening to it and my first reaction was "better" but I was still unsure. But I kept listening, more, perhaps because as Jason Crock over at Pitchfork notes, You & Me isn't as hard or immediate as the band's earlier records, but that's not a complaint; its sound is coy, and invites you to spend time with it.” I was. And then all of the sudden as I had this moment where literally my listening turned from curious to, hey I really like this. I went back to the previous albums and had the same reaction. It was really quite odd as it literally happened in a split second like a conversion and I can’t really remember that ever happening before.

Not to get into too much musical psychoanalysis here, but I think a key thing was letting go and not fighting the flow of the music. I kept seeking resolution—that the guitars were going to come off those chords, or Leithauser was going to end that next line on an appropriate third or fifth lower to resolve a phrase of sometimes down right monotone wails. And once that happened then the musical structure and sound all seemed to make sense with the lyrics seeming to float slowly by over somewhat faster happening events in the background—like listening to music while watching the world fly by outside a train window.

It also made me start paying more attention and appreciate the differences in albums and songs rather than being overly focused on the similarity of sound. You start to hear their penchant for shuffle, cha-cha, and flamenco beats (and woodblocks that keep popping up along with a few other surprising instruments). The albums are definitely different in their attitude with Bows and Arrows have the most rocking going on and You & Me being the most melodic and ballad oriented (leaving A Hundred Miles Off squarely and perhaps most interestingly in the middle). But still I find myself most attached to You & Me.

Here are a few samples. Not sure if The Walkmen will ever be thought of as “pop” but I imagine “The Rat” from Bows and Arrows has been heard by a considerable number of people (most likely mashed together in a club with really loud music). I like it becasue it has a certain Waterboys big music feel to me. Louisiana” from A Hundred Miles Off is one of the more unique sounding tunes given the funky beat and horns (although I wouldn’t call this song “typical”). Lastly two tunes from You and Me which were the two tunes that were playing during my transformation and that I think are quite wonderful—particularly “Four Provinces.” And while these are each different in style I think they capture these guys quite well as they all have that very distinct guitar driven sound with Leithauser's lyrics quietly wailing over top.  
If you aren’t by chance familiar with The Walkmen, may your journey with them be as mysterious and fund as mine has been.

The Rat (Buy Album)
Louisiana (Buy Album)
Canadian Girl
Four Provinces (Buy Album)

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