Friday, September 19, 2008

Music Review: The Walkmen-- You and Me

For their fourth record,
The Walkmen serve up a more experimental sound
from them to you.


The title of The Walkmen’s fourth album is no accident. Not only do a majority of the album’s lyrics seem to analyze interpersonal experiences of the past but musically, according to Gigantic Music’s press release, it also honors some of the band’s biggest influences such as Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Bob Marley. However, much more impressively, its sole existence this summer seems to have epitomized the way that each one of us can positively impact one another.

To explain: in honor of a seven month old battling AML leukemia, The Walkmen released their album several weeks early exclusively online for $5.00 as part of the “Download to Make A Difference” campaign via, with the proceeds of You & Me going to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Centers and The Joy Fund. And if you were out of the loop and missed its online debut and/or prefer the soon to be obsolete format of the compact disc, as does this reviewer (who actually misses vinyl), You and Me has just been released this week to add to your collection.

The album kicks off with lead singer Hamilton Leithauser announcing, “Well, it’s back to the battle today,” in You and Me’s audibly challenging opener “Donde Esta La Playa.” Setting the stage for the overwhelmingly live sounding and freewheeling styled disc, which is in stark contrast to its painstaking two year creative process, Leithauser shouts his words with enough gusto so that they feel as though they can be heard several cars behind you. While the predominantly stream-of-consciousness fashioned lyrics along with the vocal and musical experiments of the first track seem to test the waters — rocking back and forth from loud to soft like waves on the ocean — The Walkmen find their rhythm with the aptly named “On The Water.”

Although he still hollers like a musical version of Al Pacino, Leithauser reconciles his voice towards latter day Bob Dylan, playfully teasing listeners via a more driving beat underneath the lyrics ala Wilco and making great use of drummer Matt Barrick as well as the rest of the artists, including Paul Maroon, Walter Martin, and Peter Bauer. They follow up “Water” with one of the album’s stunners, “In the New Year,” which sounds like a party in itself complete with Martin’s organ that seems to take on a lightly Latin fiesta flavor as the piece grows in mini-movements, resulting in one awesomely infectious track, sure to get a lot of repeat plays from fans.

While musically “Seven Years of Holiday (for Stretch),” seems to continue on with the merry spirit, it’s deceptive as we’re caught up in lyrics chronicling life on the road, living in a suitcase, and the alternately thrilling and depressing contradictions it entails as they “ran around, banged our heads; never felt no pain.” Next they invite listeners to a Walkmen styled luau, with the SoCal sounds of “Postcards From Tiny Islands,” which carries on the musical theme introduced in the earliest tracks of You & Me but to better effect as it gets us rocking with more hard to decipher anguished (or is it joyful?) cries from our lead vocalist.

However, the guys slow things down with the pretty but forgettable “Red Moon,” before rebounding with another triumph in the Roy Orbison like “Canadian Girl,” which has an undeniably old-fashioned, hauntingly gorgeous feel that felt as though — had their been more harmonizing — it wouldn’t have been out of place on a vintage Beach Boys record. Why The Beach Boys? Possibly because the experimental nature of You & Me evoked Pet Sounds for me and while very few albums will ever come close to Brian Wilson’s epic opus, despite its mixed results, I have to applaud the effort of The Walkmen to try something different.

Especially as they continue on and the earlier chaos of You & Me becomes far more controlled, serving up more radio-friendly tracks with “Four Provinces,” which offers a chance for the other bandmates to stand out with great instrumental inventiveness, until, unfortunately Leithauser interrupts with the obsolete shout of “am I getting through?” Getting his own turn to shine again, he lets the accompaniment fade into the background with the weak “Long Time Ahead of Us,” before they prove why the vocals and instruments best work together in unison with the stronger Springsteen reminiscent “New Country.”

Although, it's the three of the four final tracks that really hooked me with the old fashioned and refreshingly fun “I Lost You,” that sounds like a throwback to the days of classic rock, the faster-paced but sing-along friendly tune “The Blue Route,” which makes surprisingly great use of what sounds like woodblocks and the final title “If Only It Were True,” which manages to persuade us into starting the disc over again.

I just wish that after a two year process and given the admirable and selfless decision to donate proceeds from the "me’s" to the less fortunate "you’s," The Walkmen would have trimmed some of the fat off a mostly successful record to make it a bit tastier and easy to digest. Still, for more than just fans of the band, it’s definitely worth a listen, yet forgive me if I skip past the vocal warm up shouts since everything’s always better “In The New Year.”