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Snapshot Review: The Walkmen – Heaven [Fat Possum/Bella Union]

Earlier this year, The Walkmen celebrated their 10th anniversary of being a band by playing a handful of special shows in cities that have special significance to them. It’s a little odd to have a band celebrate an anniversary like that unless you’re, say, the Beach Boys, who are in the middle of a 50th anniversary tour at the moment. With the current hype cycle that chews bands up and spits them out over what often feels like 6 months or less, lasting even a handful of years can be considered an accomplishment. It also takes a fair number of quality records that logically evolve and grow off one another to remain vital and keep an expanding audience from becoming bored. The Walkmen have certainly accomplished that feat, and one listen through their 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone along with one of their more recent records like 2010’s Lisbon will immediately hear a difference. They’re not the same scuzzy and fiery rock stars their early work suggested. Age, experience and now marriage and kids have all tempered those wilder ways, and in their place is a group of guys settled and content with their lives. For most bands that means death, as families can distract and happiness can breed boredom or laziness. It’s sort of like how many couples gain weight after getting married, in part because they’re no longer trying to sell themselves to another person. And we wonder why the divorce rate is so high. But conflict and anger are two key elements of rock music, and while they’re not essential to a great song or record, they certainly make both more interesting. What’s unsettling about The Walkmen’s new album Heaven then is just how much it lives up to the title. These guys are loving life right now, and they made a record about it. For some, that idea can come off as a little smug – as if the band is saying they have everything figured out while the rest of us continue to search for answers. The truth is they’re celebrating the things that have brought them such joy, and are encouraging us to join in on their happiness with the hope of learning and gaining it ourselves. Somehow they’re able to pull it off without sacrificing many of the qualities that made them great in the first place. Perhaps the person that has most changed on this record, even compared to the band’s previous one, is frontman Hamilton Leithauser. In the past his vocal style has best been described as whiskey-soaked and strained, but as the songs have become more tempered so has his singing. The album’s opening acoustic-strewn jaunt “We Can’t Be Beat” turns Leithauser into a crooner from the 1950’s, all smooth and dapper with effortless and lovely backing harmonies. Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold does backup vocal on that song along with “No One Ever Sleeps” and “Jerry Jr.’s Tune”, the latter of which is an instrumental with humming that’s more meditative than essential. Still, his contributions enhance Leithauser’s in the sort of beautiful way you’d suspect they might. Fans of the last two Walkmen albums will certainly find their fair share of solace as well in tracks like “Love Is Luck”, “Heartbreaker” and the title track, even if none of them quite match the manic energy of classics like “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages”. Doing something that dark and rushed wouldn’t make sense with the overall feel of this record though, which tries to play up the positive and does so with more retro flair than ever. Long time fans of the band may miss some of those ragers and heavy-handed moments, but songs like “Line By Line” and “Dreamboat” bring touches of despair to an otherwise upbeat album. They’re enough to show that The Walkmen haven’t completely given up on some of the feelings they were founded upon 10 years ago. With a catalogue of such high quality records though, it seems feelings don’t matter when it comes to making great music. As Leithauser sings on “Heartbreaker”, “It’s not the singer/it’s the song.” So long as The Walkmen keep making good ones, happy or sad, we’ll keep listening.

The Walkmen – Heaven

The Walkmen – We Can’t Be Beat

The Walkmen – The House You Made

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Live Friday: 10-15-10

Checking back through my personal, handwritten archives of this here website (see: Google currently is disabling my access to 3+ years of online archives), it looks like I featured The Walkmen on a Live Friday session back in May of 2009. They were still out supporting their last album “You & Me”, and put up a great set of material from that excellent record. Well, here we are a year and a half later and they’ve got a brand new album out ,”Lisbon”, and it’s one of 2010’s best. I’m pleased to share this session with you from the band as they do 4 songs from that record, recorded just over a week ago. There’s also an interview you can stream below, where the band talks about the origins of the “Lisbon” title, and whether or not each new album is a response to the one before it. Enjoy.

The Walkmen – Blue As Your Blood (Live on WXPN)
The Walkmen – Angela Surf City (Live on WXPN)
The Walkmen – Juveniles (Live on WXPN)
The Walkmen – Woe Is Me (Live on WXPN)

Stream the entire interview/session 

Buy “Lisbon” from Amazon

Album Review: The Walkmen – Lisbon [Fat Possum]

Like riding in first class on an airplane or receiving VIP treatment at a fancy hotel or music festival, there are some life experiences that stick with you for awhile. Should you attempt to repeat the grand experience and fail though, it comes off as disappointing. Suddenly riding in coach seems too pedestrian now that you’ve been to first class. And things just aren’t as interesting when you can’t hang out back stage at a show or have fresh cut flowers delivered to your hotel room free of charge every morning. We get spoiled easily, and that ruins many of our future experiences. The first time I saw …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead I was front and center against the stage as they destroyed everything on stage and invited the crowd to join them. Security had to pull me back as a microphone stand nearly bashed my head in. With adrenaline running high, I loved every life threatening second of that show, and every time I’ve gone to see the band since has been a disappointment. It is based around this reasoning I’ve made the executive decision to never see The Walkmen perform live again. Last month, I saw them twice in a span of 12 hours, the second of those times being at the ear-splitting front and center position. Watching singer Hamilton Leithauser belt out songs new and old to the rafters as the veins bulged out of his neck was simply thrilling and I’m pretty well convinced it’ll never be that good again. Good thing at that show the band played a bunch of tracks off their new record “Lisbon”, as it’s set to become the best thing they’ve released since 2004’s “Bows + Arrows”.

The Walkmen deal in misery, and hearing an upbeat or lighter record from the band would almost come off as disingenuous. Naturally then for “Lisbon” they stay within that range, though things do pick up a bit more than their last album “You & Me”. That’s not quite evident from the start, as “Juveniles” comes in at a slow crawl and deals in warmth and subtle emotional nuance. Of course The Walkmen are practically known for burying the lead in song, typically striking harder and faster with the second track in. Such is the case for “Angela Surf City”, the clearest highlight on the album and one of The Walkmen’s best tracks ever. You’ve got a subtle surf rock guitar, massive drums, and a chorus that builds upon itself as Leithauser brings it home with his whiskey-soaked wail. It’s a rare moment of sheer explosiveness from a band that typically holds back and stays in check. Almost as if they think they went too far, the following two songs return to the very subdued and calm nature they’re known for. “Stranded” provides a little bit of a lift with a grand horn section reminiscent of the band’s 2006 album “A Hundred Miles Off”. It maintains a mopey vibe but the brass really provides the added punch to lift the song to an above average status. What really sends the album soaring is “Victory”, another anthemic cut that feels as triumphant as the title suggests. The problem is, like so many Walkmen songs, the lyrics aren’t so much about winning as they are just barely losing. Still, don’t be surprised if you hear the song used in some sports-related win context within the next year, as somebody will have misunderstood what it’s about. Depressing as the title suggests, “Woe Is Me” is only a lyrical pity party, because a bit of surf rock guitar and a good tempo lift it to a toe tapping level of fun. “Torch Song” is another title that accurately describes the contents contained within, with the rich piano and bass bringing out the warmth of a few thousand lighters held high in the air, swaying back and forth. To be perfectly clear though, the track isn’t actually about longing for a lost love as most technical torch songs are, but rather the longing for a lost song, the right song to provide balance and meaning to a world of insanity. And as they tend to be something of a seasonal band, “While I Shovel the Snow” should be on your winter mixtape, the slow waltz rhythm matching well with the clean up of all those flakes that have landed on your driveway and sidewalk.

While they were recording “Lisbon”, The Walkmen made two trips to Portugal for primarily pleasure purposes. They fell in love with the country and its people, and a number of the songs were inspired by their experiences in the country. That’s also the main reason why the album is titled as such, a manner of thanking a city where they experienced so much magic. Interestingly enough, the songs themselves don’t seem to echo a lot of Portuguese musical influence, though you’d be hard-pressed to officially explain what a Portuguese musical influence actually sounds like. Really though, The Walkmen continue to sound like The Walkmen, as very few other bands are doing much similar to them these days. And though by now, a handful of records into their now 10-year careers, you might think it’s starting to get old, the quality these guys have been able to turn out time and time again remains inexplicably high. For peddling in misery and self-loathing, somehow Hamilton Leithauser still has more to say on the subject and his world-weary voice continues to provide the necessary emotion to convey it properly. Matt Barrick’s drum work remains as strong, if not stronger than ever no matter if he’s tapping on a snare or hammering down on some bass drums. Really everyone does stellar work on “Lisbon”, and in the wake of the also-great “You & Me” from a mere two years ago, The Walkmen are on something of a roll. They’re great live too, as I can readily attest, and some of these new songs are particularly exciting to experience with a large crowd on hand. So go see a show, go buy the record, and rest assured that while these songs will take you to a dark place, it’s okay to crack a smile when you come out the other side.

Buy “Lisbon” from Amazon

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