“…we can’t be beat, the world is ours.” – the Walkmen
After ten years of making music together, it sounds like the Walkmen are finally having fun. Given that they are one of the few remaining bands of the Brooklyn-NYC indie-rock explosion of the early aughts (even though the band has roots in D.C. and Philly, too), you can’t fault them for a certain humble bragging and braggadocio evidenced by their assertive opening statement on “We Can’t Be Beat”. On this their sixth studio album Heaven, Hamilton Leithauser and crew continue their transformation from indie-rock alchemical vanguardists to time-banditing troubadours. Starting with You & Me, the Walkman have slowly moved away from a brash and aggressive and at times atonal orchestration to a pleasant blend of 50s/60s retro doo-wop mixed with their unmistakably fine-tuned guitar distortion-laden rock. Along the way, what hasn’t changed are two signature and idiosyncratic features: (1) Leithauser’s raspy yet bourbon-sweet vocals and (2) the band’s penchant for pure, lush and authentic instrumentation (read: not in-studio manipulated sounds). Both of these elements combine to give the band their unique and a-temporal sound: a quasi Victorian sense of atmosphere backed by the modern accouterments of electric guitars and bass lines; however, the modernity ends there. Unlike many of their early aught counterparts, The Walkmen prefer pianos for synthesizers, eschew the fast-paced electronic dance beats and rhythms for classical waltz and chamber-like pieces. In a way, The Walkmen are the sonic equivalent of “Steampunk” – a revisionist, nostalgia-oriented aesthetic focused on fin de siècle industrialization and an idealization of machination over digitalization. But, the band does not sing odes to Nikola Tesla, marvel over steam engines and Victrolas, or discuss the rise of the modern Proletariat against the Barons of Capital (read Thomas Pynchon‘s Against the Day if that is what you’ve got a hankering for). Heaven has a backwards looking sound but of a far more recent vintage, the American 50s and 60s.
Starting with their overt allusion to the 60’s classic “Duke of Earl” on “We Can’t Be Beat”, Heaven has the feel of reinventing the halcyon sound and days of early rock when R&B was still attached to its hip and the Blues didn’t drive it towards a searing (and sensual) end. In other words, the album is airy, light and (day) dreamy in character. Take “Love is Luck” and “Song for Leigh” (two of my favorites) both of which evoke the melodious surf-rock of Roy Orbison with their gentle swaying and Southern California by way of Old Mexico sounds and rhythms, accentuated ever so cleverly by steel guitars. (Both tracks also contain those oh-so enjoyable bittersweet love song tropes, replete with lines like “I sing myself sick about you”.). The album also offers some exquisite faster paced, up-beat numbers like the first singe “”Heartbreaker”, which could easily slip into an oldies compilation between The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and The Chords’ “Sh-Boom“ (both of which appeared in seminal 80s movies, can you name them?). The piece de resistance on this track (and throughout the album) is Leithauser’s vocals that waver between expositional storytelling and impassioned yearning. Another exquisite number is the roller coaster “The Love You Love“, a song that evokes the promise of the Strokes Is This It with less pomp and more playful simplicity. The record’s titular track recalls another iconic band in its prime: U2 during the 80s when the band turned from writing populist oriented rock anthems (e.g., October and War) to homages to the inspiration of early R&B, Roots Rock and Americana (e.g., The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum). A befitting ending to this stroll down musical memory lane, the Walkmen take us out on a nostalgia-infused closing track aptly titled “Dreamboat”. In sum, this is a fabulous record with a pleasant old A.M. radio feel. It is perhaps the most pleasing and strongest Walkmen album to date (although the last two were also pretty darn good). Don’t get me wrong, I adore the creativity and adventurous nature of the Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone and Bows + Arrows, but those records require a certain mood and mindset to appreciate. Heaven is an album for everyday listening and requires less “work” to appreciate. For those folks that have never heard of The Walkmen or found their previous work inaccessible, this will provide a fresh and pleasant introduction to a great band, who deserve a great deal of credit for always staying true to their artistic vision and integrity.
So take a jaunt with the Walkmen and listen to Heaven in its entirety here.
p.s. Apologies for not posting last week, I was traveling and unable to find reliable internet connection. However, I’ve got a fairly extensive list of records to discuss over the next couple of days so you should be getting a good dose of “new” music for the upcoming week and my own personal “Best of 2012” to date.