Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Walkmen- Bows + Arrows

Had history taken a different course, the Walkmen may never have existed. Three of its member were in the beloved and much hyped Jonathan Fire*Eater in the 90s, a group many predicted to be the next big thing in rock. Since their retro-styled sound borrowed from many bands that critics loved but the public ignored, it seemed a self fulfilling prophecy when their major label debut didn't change the world. Instead, they fell apart and the New York bands they influenced—most notably The Strokes—would go on to “save rock and roll” in the early 00s with fairly similar music. Ultimately, though, I think our particular branch of history was the better one, since the Walkmen went on to be one of the most reliably great traditionalist rock bands ever.

Economy is the word that pops into my mind when I listen to the Walkmen, and their most economical music of all (at least that I've heard) is found onBows + Arrows. Their so-far masterpiece, all of its songs make as spare use as possible of the traditional 60s/70s rock set-up of guitars, bass, drums, organs, and vocals. Spoon rightly get credit and love for their stripped down Kill The Moonlight, but The Walkmen are the true masters of this approach. The best known song from this album, 'The Rat', is downright indulgent by their standards, with its walls of organ, guitar, and a propulsive drum beat. True, it's a fantastic song, arguably one of the most essential of the last decade, but in my book it's got nothing on '138th Street', which is composed of only a guitar and vocals, or the moments on the title track when the full band gives way to shuffling drums, majestic organ chords, and Hamilton Leithauser's restrained laments. To a first time listener, his ragged, straining voice may start out being the band's worst aspect, but soon the depth of expression and honesty of the performances win you over.

Similar to my initial experience with The National, the Walkmen at first seemed pretty basic and forgettable. The National eventually won me over with excellent songwriting and meticulous song craft, while Bows + Arrows taught me to love the Walkmen by showing how a band can maximize the effect of every single sound at their disposal by only using them when necessary. Just as often as not, songs or sections of songs will make due without something just because they can. 'No Christmas While I'm Talking' seems to float in the air around the 2:40 mark when only reverb drenched guitar and a plaintive organ linger like two flares piercing the night sky. They wring a lot of sound out of their self imposed limitations, and it makes the things they do play more imaginative and interesting. Listen closely to the drums on 'The North Pole' or the way they continually use keyboards and guitars as often as keepers of the melody as they do textural aids. When the band do go for the moments of full five member abandon, they sound that much larger than life because you've been trained to think of only a couple instruments and vocals as a fleshed out sound.

The Walkmen inspire people to say things like “they just keep getting better” whenever one of their albums comes out, consistently earning stellar reviews but rarely winning the top spot on album of the year lists. Perhaps it's their fate due to their rugged charm and old fashioned style. Who else would release something as great as A Hundred Miles Off and on a whim follow it up a few months later with a pretty good cover of the entire P*ssy Cats album by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson? No one but the Walkmen, just as no one but the Walkmen could make Bows + Arrows. If this one doesn't turn out to be their masterpiece for the ages, then I'll be genuinely happy, because it's hard to imagine them topping it.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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