I’ve begun to worry whether I’m becoming too enthusiastic about music, raving about nearly every band I see and every record I hear (when just last year, I very nearly gave up music writing altogether out of frustration with what I perceived as the dearth of interesting new records). Certainly there’s been a sea-change, and 2002 is presenting us with a king’s banquet of terrific releases, but how much of my cheerleading comes from how goddamn grateful I am to have albums like the Walkmen’s Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, albums that genuinely please me instead of merely making me nod and grunt in acknowledgment? The answer: I write about music because I’m enthusiastic about it, and if I had the same passion for, say, golf clubs, I’d write about those, too. So I felt no guilt standing in the front row of New York’s Bowery Ballroom, dancing and cheering to a midnight show by hometown boys the Walkmen.
I’m not sure how much is riding on the Walkmen’s success; whether they’re “poised” for anything the way the critically adored, publicly ignored Jonathan Fire*Eater were before Wolf Songs For Lambs made its now-legendary belly-flop into the used-bins of America (three of the alWkmen are ex-Fire*Eaters, a point that’s usually brought up with some derision along with the phrase “post-Strokes”). In all fairness, Jonathan Fire*Eater came along in the wrong musical climate; there’s no way such a band could have succeeded in 1998, at a time when the Top 40 was not particularly friendly with stripped-down, lyrical-bent art-punky rock ‘n’ roll. And even now, “post-Strokes,” I think it’s pretty doubtful that the mainstream will take to the Walkmen, when what it really wants is the scripted rebelliousness of P!nk. If the Walkmen know this, they don’t appear to care much—music’s not a dependable living any way you slice it, so why not shitcan the careerism and have fun?
And it was a fun gig. Singer/guitarist Hamilton Leithauser admitted that he was sick, but that didn’t stop him from throwing every bit of himself into the performance. He’s a joy to watch, stretching beyond his height like a little kid trying to will himself taller, running the gamut of emotions, from exuberant to icy and mean, singing with sardonicism and class and romance. I love that the band seem so self-sufficient without him, that the vocals could almost be an afterthought, a grace note, but that Leithauser gives you something marvelous to pay attention to if you’re up for it.
The Walkmen have a dense, layered feel that’s also loose and jazzy—goaded along by a ‘60s Vox Continental organ; a flanged-out Gretsch guitar; the occasional electric piano; strong, beat-conscious drumming, and a heavy, droney bass.
The bass sound is similar to Interpol’s. Rather than use the instrument as a rhythmic or melodic component of the band, both the Walkmen and Interpol see the bass in its more classical facility—as pure bottom end. The bass isn’t herky-jerky and hyperactive; it fills each measure with music and never lets a moment of silence leak through. Ambience is everything with the Walkmen—at times the fuzztoned resonance of the competing instruments is downright liturgical.
But this sure as hell isn’t Godspeed You Black Emperor. It’s Achtung Baby, it’s Joey Santiago’s guitar playing on “Where Is My Mind?”, it’s the piano on Bruce Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street”, it’s Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, it’s Quasi, it’s the Kinks (the Walkmen have been known to cover “Waterloo Sunset”, and at the Bowery they encored with a well-handled “Come Dancing”), it’s Hawaiian surf-rock, it’s calypso, it’s country, it’s mod—it can be any of those at one time, or it can be none of those, but it’s almost always upbeat, with Leithauser’s voice acting as the roof for the Walkmen’s intrepid stagecoach.
The concert was mostly a run-through of the Everyone material, and the audience was happy (albeit in that conservative, “respectful” New York way) to hear “We’ve Been Had”, “That’s the Punchline”, and the title track. It was a short set (about an hour), and that was fine—no filler, no dumb banter, no aching feet, no chance of the band overstaying their welcome. It was a good, solid club date, on a nice September evening, in support of an excellent album. (Detached, noncommital crit-speak, of course: “Fuckin’ incredible” would be the emotionally honest answer here, so take that to your hype machine and jam it.)