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I’m not as skinny as I used to be, I have some gray hairs, and now my hangovers last for two days. I don’t work out as much as I want to and I never feel like I’m as productive as I could be. I sit outside, sipping a gin n’ tonic, wondering how it all slipped away so quickly–the promise of my youth, the bright star of my future, a blooming adulthood in flowers–and how I became a soft, relenting cog in the mechanisms of American Life. In a short burst of rebellion I toss my glass onto the lawn. The insurgence only lasts a moment. The ice cubes are spread across the grass and my gin is gone. Hendricks isn’t cheap. I call inside to my girlfriend and tell her to pour another. Sometimes it’s tough to know if this is real life or if I’m just listening to a Walkmen song. The effect of this band is that heavy and they are coming to Iowa City on April 27 (full disclosure: I helped set up the show and I think they are stellar).
Maybe you’ve heard of them or perhaps they’ve eluded you but out there, in the shadows, the Walkmen have been around for quite awhile–11 years–and the truth is that they are one of the best bands in contemporary music.
For the uninitiated, consider this your introduction to a fine new act.
If art is about reflecting the aspects of life that we can’t readily express then the Walkmen are masters at capturing the moments of realization that everything has escaped us: evaporations of success, failures of romance and detours from sobriety. They dwell in the uneasy space of human inertia and passive regret and they deal in the condition of those who are both trapped and free at the same time. If this all sounds like a maudlin drag, it isn’t. The music is exhilarating. It is alternately charged and anthemic or glacial and dreamy. No contemporary band is as capable as the Walkmen of conjuring vicious sonic peaks on one song before dipping into icy, measured ballads on the next. Their lyrics, uttered with a certain Leonard Cohen all-knowingness, often cut their subjects and characters in half. The overall sound is surprisingly diverse: at times it is abrasive–filled with clanging, echoed guitars, aggressive organs and relentless drums–and at other times it is elegant–lifted by strings, horns, and tender melodies.
The band emerged from a Harlem-based studio in 2000, having assembled themselves from the ashes of two renowned East Coast groups, Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Recoys. The veterans of Fire*Eater–Walter Martin (organ, eventually bass), Paul Maroon (guitar, piano, horn), Matt Barrick (drums)–form the basis of the Walkmen’s vintage, singular sound. Martin brings an array of thick, wavering organ tones while Maroon exercises an interest in heavily reverbed and intensely plucked guitars. Barrick’s drums, anchored by wild detonations on the toms, are the backbone. The former Recoys are Pete Bauer (bass, eventually organ), the modest but essential player tying everything together in the background, and Hamilton Leithauser, the voice of the band whose ancient croon sometimes recalls ‘50s-era lounge singers before it elevates into an all-consuming howl.
In the early 2000s the Strokes had drawn attention to the NYC scene with their debut Is This It? and Interpol had followed-up with Turn on the Bright Lights. Soon the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio would issue their acclaimed debuts. The Walkmen, appearing with an EP in 2001 and then with their full-length in 2002, were lumped into this next wave of NYC bands. Though critics took note of them in the beginning, they never quite achieved the mass adoration of the Strokes. Instead, they built a career, steadily, almost quietly. They were more like the National in their ascent than the hype-deflated likes of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
Their first record, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2002), worked up an atmospheric, wintry din while the follow-up and breakthrough, Bows & Arrows (2004), expanded on those textures: the ballads were more densely arranged and the anthems more vicious. Both albums reflected the band’s penchant for lonely moods as well as unforgettable hooks. They created the middle-class hipster coming-of-age standard with “We’ve Been Had” (used in a charming Saturn Ion commercial back in 2002) on their first record and coughed out one of the most acerbic and irresistible songs of the decade with “The Rat” on Bows & Arrows, the latter becoming their calling card. Meanwhile their live concerts became notable, sometimes divisive experiences with fans swearing by them and interested neophytes leaving somewhat distraught by the thick wall of sound, loads of new, complicated material and no guarantee of hearing the “hits” that had turned them on. No one, however, could deny the blistering intensity of the band’s onstage presence.
2006 brought forth two records. Their misunderstood third album A Hundred Miles Off was more transitional than difficult as the band increasingly explored opaque textures, piercing guitars and brooding vocals. Yet, immediate classics–the Dylanesque “Louisiana”–were tucked between noisier gems–the elliptical, stunning “All Hands and the Cook”. On the heels of A Hundred Miles Off the band released an indulgent and humorous full-album cover of Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats. Presented as a throw-away of sorts, the record actually offered the band an opportunity to explore a sonic levity that would emerge on their later breakthrough records.
You & Me (2008) and Lisbon (2010) are possibly the band’s best known records. On both albums, the Walkmen curb back their trademark menace in exchange for string charts, horns, and the most intimate vocal delivery from Leithauser yet. Still, both albums are full of catchy burners–“In the New Year”, “Angela Surf City”–and enduring ballads–“Canadian Girl” and “Stranded”. If anything, the Walkmen’s career has been a study in evolution and consistency. Each of their albums can make an argument for being their best (save for Pussycats) and each record also presents a slight evolution in sound. In a time when their former New York, early-2000s classmates (um, Strokes, yeah Interpol) have become less than interesting, the Walkmen continue to impress their longtime fans and bring new ones into the fold. Though, from the beginning, the Walkmen never shaped their sound to popular tastes. Instead they pushed forth in their own way, patiently waiting for the culture to catch up to them… or not.