I first heard The Walkmen when a friend made me a compilation CD back in about 2003 which included the tracks ‘We’ve Been Had’ and ‘Wake Up.’ It was a good choice because these two songs are probably the most melodic on the whole album, so it was a bit like hearing the singles on the radio before an album comes out. This was several months before Bows And Arrows was released. I loved the rawness of the sound. They earned themselves Pixies comparisons back then, and it was mostly because ‘Wake Up’ channels slower Pixies numbers such as ‘Where Is My Mind’ in its main riff. But there is a distinct similarity to the abrasiveness of those first Pixies albums over the whole sound field. The Walkmen aren’t into speed though, and they don’t have the Pixies’s melodic firepower.
What I like about The Walkmen is their commitment to a classic do-it-yourself indie rock sound. They’re all about an anti-digital technology aesthetic, using the recording space itself as one of their instruments. I mean the actual interior of the recording space becomes a skin reverberating sound back into the microphone exactly as a mike records the beat of a drum. The downside of this is that they can be a bit hard on the ears after a whole album; the sound creates listener fatigue, the aural equivalent of eating toffee.
Hamilton Leithauser’s weird rasp has called to mind Bob Dylan for some reviewers and that’s not far wrong. A better touchstone might be Shane MacGowan sans the Irish accent. The Pogues reference seems doubly apt given the Walkmen’s use of piano to augment their sound, always a submerged and dreamy Christmas-bells kind of effect in their music. It’s their edge, their thing, like gherkin is to a MacDonalds burger.
What I’m writing to here is the original 2002 vinyl release. These platters were first pressed in small numbers – a hundred of the white vinyl, and a limited number of the black. They were called the ‘Black’ and ‘White’ albums respectively. There was also a pressing of 500 copies of both albums together called ‘Black and White’ containing the exact same tracks as the separate versions. However, in early 2012, to celebrate a decade since the release of Everybody Who… the Walkmen released 1000 copies of the album on vinyl with the same tracklist as the CD.
At least for completists these Black and White EPs come with three extra tracks which aren’t available on the new vinyl version. Their titles are highlighted below in red. So I’ll begin here with ‘White’ which better corresponds to the first half of Everybody Who… followed by ‘Black’, and I’ll be following the running order of the tracks as they appear on my copies. Anyway, this is a long intro – how ‘bout flippin’ the disk on Bumstead?
Wake Up… pulsing repeated guitar chord, twinkly piano sound, loud drum beat, but all mixed to sound ‘live,’ and Leithauser’s fearsome rasp; “Out of a station through my radio / Nothing’s on it / Like a joke that’s told without its final line.” In this song Leithauser’s trying to “wake up” from what I gather is his social matrix. And what is truly amazing about his vocal performance in every Walkmen song is the way he stretches lyrics to fit the rhythm. It’s his thing, a neat affectation, but stretched roughly as though the lyrics are bubblegum—don’t stretch ‘em too far or they’ll pop. The bashed drum sound is prominent here, a pause in the song and then that descending Pixies guitar line. It’s all very simple sounding, all four instruments widely separated in the mix. A great tune, awesome opener.
Rue The Day… opens with that trademark twinkling piano that sounds as if it’s being played with the lid down, or the mike has been placed beneath the floorboards. After the first verse, the song speeds up, then slows right down again, with rapidly thrummed bass, just faint in the mix, the piano, and then it picks up again, slowly increasing speed. “I know you won’t be thinking of me now, it’s been years / But I hope you change your mind when we were introduced.” The song evokes the nostalgia of thinking about someone you dated years ago. “I’m a lucky guy now / But I’ll never know until it’s gone.” The song morphs in and out of sections and speeds, with an appealing tune. Another very cool song.
Don’t Be Long… has a very fast shuffly drumbeat, far off guitar line, and Leithauser sounding like he’s phoning his vocal in from the bathroom. “Hey now / Don’t look so upset / Hey now / Let’s get out of bed / Gone on, gone on / Let yourself out and don’t call me again if your arm’s twisted.” He’s really pleading here, almost as if he just wants this girl to be gone. Guitars and drums speed up and get louder as the song builds to a slightly noisy crescendo. Not such a memorable tune.
Stop Talking… all shuffly brushes and messy military snare, lots of that submerged piano tinkling, really pretty and evocative of sad cinema. Drum stops and whiny guitar or cello comes on: “My hands / Come together / And I draw in the breath through my teeth / Your curt shots / Sarcastic remarks / Come so often / They’re never sincere.” There’s all sorts of strange dynamic shifts here in between instrumental section changes, and Leithauser singing about feeling the pain in his free time. Again, this is about a failing relationship, or an argument, a lover’s quarrel perhaps, but it sounds more vicious. The music returns to those brushed drums and tinkling pianos, hovers around and fades out.
We’ve Been Had… is another magnificent number, winding in slowly on a repeated piano figure, a drum beat and one of Leithauser’s best vocal/lyric combos; “I’m a modern guy / I don’t care much for the go-go / Or the retro image I see so often / Telling me to keep trying / Maybe you’ll get here someday / Keep up the work kid, okay / I close the book on them right there.” You have to admire his vocal gymnastics on this; it’s amazing, almost comical. And the chorus: “We’ve been had / You say it’s over / Sometimes I’m just happy I’m older / We’ve been had / I know it’s over / Somehow it got easy to laugh out loud.” Amazing effects with the echoing piano, subway train guitars, and an almost lounge-friendly bass line. Love this line: “See me age nineteen / With some dumb haircut / From 1960 / Moving to New York / Sitting here with my friends / We’re all taking the same steps / Seems foolish now.” A song about growing up, brushing off the peer pressure thing and realizing that all your dumb late teenage ideals have disintegrated. Again, Leithauser struggles to break out of the matrix – that’s his voice – always sounds likes he’s being dragged back by ghosts from the past, things he can’t let go of.
Pictures Of Us… has this almost recognizable guitar part, with powerful dynamic changes between a weird alarm-sounding piano/guitar piece with the main guitar riff and bashed drum, but quite effective and unusual sounding, while Leithauser rasps “It doesn’t matter / It doesn’t matter.” Then it’s as though they run a keyboard through a wah-wah pedal. Quite a freaky sound. Not much of a tune though.
Revenge Wears No Wristwatch… is a great little number, intense interplay between drums and guitars, with Leithauser singing about anger: “Anger, anger, treats me hard / I tell her I say / I’ve heard it all before / I’ve had it up to here / Such a mess, I am.” A very repetitive rhythm holds this all together, then it’s all stripped back to just guitar. The whole time you can almost hear the other musicians standing around waiting their turn to come in. So, another argument song. This guy’s not having a lot of fun. His lyrics aren’t particularly poetic, (they seem quite literal) nor discernable, because of the way he makes his voice turn unusual corners in the middle of syllables or how he stretches and squashes words into shape. Pretty noisy and miserable stuff, but effective.
I’m Never Bored… a piercing floaty keyboard line wavering in and out, otherwise just a vocal line and a drumbeat. I like the lyrics to this. “Sometimes I go out / Sometimes I stay in / To entertain myself / It’s too late to change my self.” It’s one of those cold winter day songs, about the dull minutiae of daily life, with an ironic edge. The stuff he’s describing sounds about as much fun as watching winter pass. “I go to unhook the VCR cable and / The bath of massive tangled grey and black / And turn across to somewhere in the back / I’m leaning over down behind the TV stand / A radiated pause / A hissing line and stranded as / Spits among the dust / I give up.” He sings about mimicking with his arms as “I exaggerate the plot.” All the while echoey, screeching (but never too loud) guitars and raw drums play in and out of each other in a fairly doledrummy kind of way. It’s a kind of punk sound I suppose, but not rebellious punk. More like The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys—that ‘10:15 Saturday Night’ kind of sullen angst.
They’re Winning… comes rolling on a heavy electric guitar/drum pulse, other concrete noises like rattled chains, beat gets harder and harder, then Leithauser’s dry throaty vocal, “They’re winning / I know its not fair, but what is? / I’ve given up hope / I’ve stood in line so many times / How could I, do it all again?” The music changes chords a couple of times, the guitar notes, but the whole thing maintains that heavy noisy pulse for all of two minutes and crumbles.
Roll Down The Line… a hi-hat rhythm and a schlocky irregular piano part, and Leithauser’s voice in higher mode, “Where’d you go? / Tonight I woke to find you gone,” and actually managing a falsetto on those last two words. A raucous drone starts up, everything gets noisy and then all drops out for five seconds, before it’s just Leithauser rasping out barely comprehensible syllables and what almost sounds like a dance beat. This is how they construct their songs – out of different combinations and permutations of the same four instruments—guitar, piano, drums, voice. Is there even a bass on here? Not often. That’s probably what gives their sound such a trebly feel.
French Vacation… I love the opening of this, just a repeated guitar note over two chords. “I left my friend / Of drinking in on time.” The guitar line here is quite melodic and searching at the same time. This comes closest to sounding a lot like Interpol with that ding ding ding ding doo doo doo doo guitar part. Leithauser does a good job of sounding drunk here. Well, he sounds drunk much of the time, but here his words sound slurred. “Just go get a lounge / Been drunk on my own / Hey where’d you go?” The music keeps changing, but always sounding like Interpol. One of the longest songs here, it keeps churning away, the same two chord melody. One of the better numbers on here if only because it holds you in its lush slipstream.
It Should Take A While… is a bit dire. Just a drum beat, a distant falsetto wailing and a despairing, cigarettes and whiskey wasted vocal from Leithauser singing something about “I don’t care that much right now / I’m a mess, I can’t get out.” Again, he’s deliberately slurring here as if this song was recorded straight after the alcoholic stupor of the previous song. There’s no tune here, the music is really sparse and not particularly pretty, all texture and concrete jungle late night loneliness dissolving into a single note of feedback before a warm bass sound hums along, faint piano and guitar notes spike the blackness. Pretty dreary stuff. “Goodnight, sure it’s been a long time. / That’ll be enough for tonight / Let’s not push our luck this time.” This is a particularly ugly little number, outstaying its welcome. “I wasted hours, I’ll forgive / The hard luck, I’ll accept it.” Crikey. What a hangover of a song. This is like Tom Waits without any of the romantic loser appeal to make it somehow redeemable.
The Blizzard Of 1996… woodblock clicks and knocks, a tambourine shake and that gorgeous piano line, “When windows close just like my lids as I’m sleeping / Lift the blinds up slowly, let the night in / We’ve begun to work things out again / There’s no other way around it,” he sings, dragging the words out like a tramp wailing in the gutter. “Windoooooows close just like your eardrum as I’m saying ‘let’s get forget those things I did this winter.” The singing here is freakin’ awesome, you’ve never heard anyone sing quite like this before. The dude could sing a prose essay if he wanted. The piano tinkles along, the clicks and shuffle of wooden slats slinks away into the night. Strange piece indeed. Less a song than a piece of crafted sound.
Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone… some reviewers compare this to U2 or even The Cure and I suppose you can hear a little of say ‘With Or Without You’ in it’s repeating mantra of single note guitar, which bursts open into a ringing chiming piece of beauty after about one minute. Leithauser repeats the chorus, “I made the best of it” and resorts to barely audible falsetto, all cracks and splinters. The song sort of swells and troughs as the singer keeps telling us he made the best of it. Is that a violin near the end? Yes, a nice touch. Quite a sad sounding song.
That’s The Punchline… is another goodie. Here we have echoey rubbed guitars, and a great catchy vocal, “I know that you’re superstitious / That you follow glamour / You’re so caught up, they push you around, and up and down.” The drum beat sounds danceable, quite an inventive rhythm, then the chorus; “That’s the punchline / That’s the way it should be / That’s the last time you’ll ever hear it from me.” So here he’s giving someone a hard time for being a wannabe, a glamour-puss, a hipster. The two guitar parts interact and swap around, a rubbed shimmering rhythm thing and a louder soloing electric line. The beat is quite poppy.
It’s A Crime That I Complain… is another with rubbed frets, all vibrato shimmering, a drumbeat and a fairly plaintive vocal, “I’ve grown accustomed to you / The way that you speak” he sings, in a witchy voice, kind of half-threatening and half-afraid. And then, “Baby, I was beat or perhaps I just got bored / Baby, conversation can carry more / And now and then I get drunk to hell / I wake up sick, and I hate myself.” He does in fact sound sick as a dog in this song. It’s a sickly weak thing with a beat that sounds like it’s coming from the pub down the road. Quite a tuneless dreary piece. This is exclusive to the Black record. Lucky me. “I don’t mind the quiet / Talking is such a drag / Forget it, forget it / Forget it, forget it.” I don’t think I’ll have much problem forgetting this track.
Listening closely, I’m starting to get an idea of just how miserable this record is. It works in places, but there’s a bit of filler in here too. It’s quite difficult music to write about. Mostly the songs clock in around the 3~4 minute mark. There’s a lot of subtle dynamic and sectional shifts between instruments to create tension and atmosphere, and sonic lo-fi moodiness is just as important to The Walkmen’s sound as are the lyrics, songwriting and melody. The thing is that The Walkmen would go on to record their follow-up album Bows + Arrows with this exact same aesthetic. A raw, echoey, nostalgic sound full of space and noise and that twisted wicked rasp of Leithauser always ambiguously wavering between pissed-off-ness, slurred drunkenness and wasted resignation. The music captures that sense of ennui well, the way everything sounds like a struggle, the mess and clutter of daily life, of being endowed with the mental capacity to make ends meet easily enough but lacking the motivation, or too aware of getting caught up in the rat-race, to want to bother. I’m quite certain it’s this notion of difficulty and trial that translates into their music, their song structures and their sound aesthetic that sometimes makes listening to the Walkmen as much like work as it is leisure. Interestingly, the three songs left off the CD are the three least interesting. I’m not convinced this is such a great debut album. There are four or five really great numbers here but their better work was yet to come.