All due respect to Sonic Youth, perhaps the Walkmen should adopt the washing machine as their emblem. And not just any brand: a Maytag model. The Washington, D.C. / New York City / Philadelphia quintet has been churning out a steady stream of superlative rock and roll for more than 10 years now, releasing six studio full-lengths along with daunting supply of EPs, singles, and other recordings. Much of that output is exceptional, and it’s all worthwhile. Generally speaking, critics don’t like to use the word “solid,” but in this case, there doesn’t seem to be a better descriptor.
Forged from the ashes of would-be-titans Jonathan Fire*Eater and Boston-based the Recoys, the members of the Walkmen — besides bassist-organist Peter Bauer — go all the way back to attending St. Albans School in D.C. In fact, frontman Hamilton Leithauser and organist-bassist Walter Martin are cousins. (For those who are counting, the remaining musicians are guitarist-pianist Paul Maroon and drummer Matt Barrick.)
The Walkmen released their first EP in 2001 and followed it up with a full-length, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, in 2002, making last year something of an anniversary. But the band is still as precocious and rambunctious as a 10- to 12-year-old can be, never settling down. Surely, “solid” describes a level of consistency, but the Walkmen never rest on their laurels. In the studio, the group has moved from recording at its own studio (Marcata) in New York to sessions in Oxford, Mississippi (the location of its current label, Fat Possum) and Seattle, as well as enlisting the assistance of impresarios like Phil Ek.
Their sound has touched on dive-bar-ready, bedraggled lo-fi to immaculate post-punk. All the while, the troupe has been committed to the kind of no-nonsense rock you wish more bands could commit to, and do well. And, it’s not just about what’s been caught on tape: The Walkmen play live constantly. The group begins a new tour leg tomorrow, 1/11, in one of its various adopted hometowns, Philadelphia, in continued support of 2012′s Heaven, which ranked in the single digits on our list of last year’s best albums. So what better time to sort through their terrific catalog? Of course, with a catalog this deep, selecting 10 cuts to spotlight invariably leaves out a few dozen more that were more or less equally deserving – let’s go over those in the comments. What follows is an essential sampling of one of America’s finest post-millennial rock bands.
10. “Angela Surf City” from Lisbon (2010)
“Angela” starts off with a punch-you-in-throat, how-you-like-me-now drumbeat from Matt Barrick. He’s one of the most talented stickmen in the game and rarely gets a proper hat-tip for stringing together series of complex, propulsive combinations. Leithauser chimes in after Barrick establishes his territory, singing about — what else? — a girl. The guitar parts and the general trajectory of the tune are very much in line with the Portuguese theme that runs throughout the record.
Here, specifically, come images of the coast, with references to white caps before bubbling into a full-on basher that would make Dick Dale sit up on his board and take note. But don’t be fooled by surface indications of babes and tans: The Walkmen almost always have a philosophical bent to their lyrics. Leithauser peppers “Angela” with reflections like: “What’s the difference? / Today’s a day like any other”; “You took the high road / I couldn’t find you up there”; and “Now I dream of a time / I was holding onto you / For a lack of anything to do.” Surf’s up.
9. “Louisiana” from A Hundred Miles Off (2006)
The Walkmen edge closer to home, geographically, on the opening track of their third LP. The Bayou State is the ostensible subject, Leithauser’s first word uttered mirrors the title of the song. (“Louisiana” also contains the lyrics for what would become the title of the album.) The beginning pace is plodding, Leithauser pensively considering the South. But if there’s a trademark element the Walkmen have perfected across their canon, it’s a marvelous build. And here the gents bust out tools they would use over and over again on later records: horns.
“I’ve got my hands full,” Leithauser sings, and then a Dixieland-style brass section pops off. The horns fade and they reappear to join the thrusting rhythms of a piano. The tune fades out, like a Mardi Gras party that might just keep going on forever.
8. “Heaven” from Heaven (2012)
If you’re wondering what’s currently on the minds of the Walkmen, just take a look at the video for the title song from the group’s latest release. Images of Hamilton, Paul, Walter, Peter, and Matt whisk by, a movable scrapbook committed to film. There are shots and videos of pre-Walkmen gigging interspersed with black-and-white film of the band’s current state. And, then, some quick flashes of their kids and significant others.
Leithauser begins the song, “Our children / will always hear / romantic tales of distant years / our gilded age may come and go / our crooked dreams will always glow.” These are older men, unburdened by the pretenses of the business they’ve chosen. There’s a contentedness to this stated pinnacle, but the band seems to be saying they know its place. “Stick with me / oh, you’re my best friend / all of my life, you’ve always been / remember, remember / all we fight for,” Leithauser sings.
The shots of the road might be the most telling, evidence of well-worn tires and too many nights spent on hotel room floors strewn with drive-thru wrappers. The gray hairs are more abundant now, but there’s also greater purpose. Whether Leithauser is speaking to his fellow bandmates or their families, the group has decided to stick it out together. And whether the war being waged is for something as basic as putting food on the table or loftier ambitions of musical integrity, the Walkmen have realized the battle’s worth.
7. “We’ve Been Had” from Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (2002)
The Walkmen’s full-length debut is, as one might expect, scrappier than what the band has mustered in the studio in the decade since. But the record’s raw energy is gripping, and this stand-out is its best example. Walter Martin’s drunken saloon keys usher the tune into its beautiful stumble. Looking back, there’s a potent irony to these words: “We’ve been had / you say it’s over.” It’s probably a relationship Leithauser speaks of — if not Jonathan Fire*Eater’s relationship with label DreamWorks — but thinking of the Walkmen as jaded so early on in their career is more affirming than comical. Sure, they’ve lasted for longer than maybe even they thought they would, but it’s great to know they’ve always been looking at the world a little bit askew.
6. “Woe Is Me” from Lisbon (2010)
Another forlorn one from the crew, “Woe Is Me” trades the spine built of piano strokes on “We’ve Been Had” for another formidable Barrick beat. “Woe Is Me” begins with a resonant guitar part characteristic of Paul Maroon, cascading forward like a cup runneth over. It’s a fairly upbeat chord progression, but trouble is afoot. Leithauser has a girl, he wants you to know, who used to be his. “I lost my nerve and I lost my head / just about everything I had,” he laments. This is heavy stuff, and the refrain hasn’t even been unleashed yet: “Woe is me.”
Almost any other band would make this into some kind of depressing dirge, but not the Walkmen. Maroon’s guitar work buoys the affair, guaranteeing it never sinks into pathos. Still, it’s a tune written by wearied men: broken hearts and all.
5. “I Lost You” from You & Me (2008)
Let it be said that You & Me is the Walkmen’s masterpiece. This list could conceivably be made up almost entirely of songs from that album alone. So before any “Four Provinces” acolytes go apeshit in the comments, let’s all accept the depth and complexity of You & Me’s songs as fact. Choosing a few songs from this record as exemplary is like whittling a redwood into a toothpick.
Again, Leithauser has lost someone on this track. But boy, do the Walkmen know how to throw a cacophonous party around such loss. There might not be a single more powerful moment in the band’s canon than when he pipes in, “The trumpet and the trombone / still echoing in the hall,” and then, actual horns erupt. It’s a triumphant burst toward the end zone, worse for the wear but still driving on.
4. “All Hands And The Cook” from A Hundred Miles Off (2006)
There are certain cuts that, through the years, have stuck around and made it into most Walkmen setlists. This is one. It’s a rising, encircling mass — something you’d want to listen to before going into battle on horseback if there were still battles on horseback. When played live, Leithauser harnesses his inner Brando or Dean — especially if he’s rocking a leather jacket — enveloping the microphone with swagger. The lyrics of “Cook” are tough to make out, for the most part, but it’s fitting: This one is all about grit and bravado. Did he just sing about shots fired or broken windows? Probably; it sounds about right.
3. “In The New Year” from You & Me (2008)
How apropos this one is for early January. And, as for the Walkmen, it touches upon a subject they’ve covered before, most specifically on “New Year’s Eve” from 2004′s Bows + Arrows. Here, the troupe is looking forward — optimistically! — to the next 12 months. “I know that it’s true,” Leithauser croons, “It’s gonna be a good year.” And then, the prescience sets in. Released in the summer of 2008, “In The New Year” alluded to the then-upcoming presidential election. “We won by a landslide,” he sings, “Our troubles are over.” Well, maybe that last part wasn’t totally true. But it was still a pretty good year.
2. “On The Water” from You & Me (2008)
This inimitable song from the Walkmen’s most impeccable album is a stunner. It’s the third track and a slow boiler. Maroon and Barrick start patiently before Leithauser chimes in with his cutting lyrics. Pre-Lisbon, it could’ve been an inspiration for the “theme” of that later album. The song feels aquatic — coasting and waving along. “All the years keep rolling,” the frontman declares, his voice as broken yet assured as Leonard Cohen’s. “The decades flying by / but the days are long.” And then he shrieks and wails like a surprised baby.
As it crescendos, “On The Water” bubbles into a massive thing — a song the Walkmen can slot last in a set or as an encore. The band joins in to blast all of their instruments together and whistle along together. It barely breaches the three-minute mark, a dissertation in compact grandiosity.
1. “The Rat” from Bows + Arrows (2004)
If you’ve been to a Walkmen show in the past decade and the band hasn’t played “The Rat,” then you haven’t been to a Walkmen show in the past decade. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that a group could still enjoy performing a song like this. Do the Rolling Stones still get satisfaction from “Satisfaction”? How many more times can Kenny Rogers grin his way through “The Gambler” before he folds ’em? The Walkmen must be bored by now banging their way through “The Rat” at every show, but they shouldn’t (and surely don’t) hold that against the song. Any group should be proud to have written a gem of this remarkable quality and value.
Legend has it that the Walkmen stumbled across the tune noodling around one day. And Leithauser claims he wrote the lyrics in about the same amount of time it takes to play the song itself. “The Rat” is anchored by insane quickness from both Maroon and Barrick. Watching Barrick, specifically, bash the skins on “The Rat” live is a sight to behold. You hope his arms don’t fly off and, also wonder if the group should employ an NBA towel boy while on tour.
The song’s effusive energy would be enough to make it a lasting statement, but it achieves greatness because of Leithauser’s quickly penned words. “When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw / now I go out alone if I go out at all,” he repeats as the surrounding instruments slow it down a notch. It’s a morose picture he’s painting, a sharp juxtaposition from the molten-hot tempo of the instrumentation. But such is the directive and brilliance of the Walkmen: smiling and crying at the same time.
Listen to this playlist on Spotify.