The Walkmen, Pussycats, 2006

This was the second release for The Walkmen in 2006. The CD version, which I still have floating around somewhere, came with a bonus DVD, containing a ‘making of the album’ video. Pussycats is a song-by-song cover of the 1974 album Pussycats by Nilsson and John Lennon, which was already mostly covers. So you’ve got not just covers here, but covers of covers—both Nilsson’s original and especially the Walkmen’s version sound like party albums. Almost every track is a singalong.  In fact, the Walkmen invited a whole bunch of their friends into their studio to sing “Loop de Loop.” The album, a quickly recorded off-the-cuff affair documents the end of their DIY apartment studio, dubbed ‘Marcata,” thus making it a fairly low-key thing. A slightly bizarre idea, but because they actually carried it out and released it, it’s sort of become one of those trivia-making moments. One day, around 2036, this will be 30 years old too, and lost no doubt in the great morass of rock history. Will there be another New York band around then to take up the mantle?

For the most part this is a highly entertaining listen, yet it almost sounds tossed off, a distinct throwaway quality. You can hear the Walkmen’s soft-noise aesthetic, loud and clear throughout the recording, but it’s a nice balm on the ears after the trashy assault of A Hundred Miles Off earlier in the year. Miaow miaow Bumstead…

Many Rivers To Cross… bursts into its quite lovely and surreal symphonic opening with viola, violin, cello, tambourine, maracas, and vox continental organ. The mix is nice, Leithauser’s voice comes scrabbling dryly over top of the instrumentation. “Many rivers to cross / But I just can’t seem to find my way over / Wandering, I got lost / As I travel along white cliffs of Dover … And this loneliness won’t leave me alone / It’s such a drag to be left on your own / My women left me and she didn’t say why / Well I guess I have to try, try.” He sounds like he’s gargling sand – either that or he’s got a throat full of flem. But it sure sounds cool. Then we get a neat instrumental section with puddly bits of guitar, blurry and watery. This is quite a moving performance. They’ve really gone the full hog here, made a proper show of it. Beautiful.

Subterranean Homesick Blues… utilizes a loud raw bashed drum sound, with almost military precision, some kind of “psssshew” sound running through it. There’s a second singer, not really singing, more like chanting the lyrics with Leithauser. It’s really fuzzy, and looking at the musicians list, apparently they achieve this effect with fuzz bass and kazoo. Add to that a farfisa organ. and a scratchy saxophone solo in the middle of the song and it all sounds slightly crazy, a whole roomful of people all working furiously away at their instruments just to keep up with the relentless beat. The vocals somehow seem lackluster in this environment. There’s none of Dylan’s cynical snarl here. There’s no vocal subtleties at all really, while the beat plods quite vigorously through all the fuzz until the end. Something quite entertaining about this though.

Don’t Forget Me… is slow, a mournful piano-laden melody, with only vocals and bass guitar. “In the wintertime  / Keep your feet warm / Keep your clothes on and don’t forget me / Keep your memories / And keep your powder dry too / In the summer by the poolside / While the fireflies are all around you / I’ll miss you when I’m lonely / Miss the alimony too / Don’t forget me / Don’t forget me / Make it easy on me just for a little while / You know I think about you / Let me know you think about me too.” Brilliant. Leithauser sings this as if it were a Walkmen song from the Everyone Who Pretended album – a drunken swoozy lurching thing. You can’t really fault this. The vocal part is performed to perfection. A sad dude pining for his ex out some winter window into the swirly snowy night.

All My Life… is even more twisty-psychedelic, boom-cha boom-cha, circus-like, cowbells, vibra-slap, cellos and violins, and farfisa organ, all creating the most gorgeous syncopated rhythm. The louder you play it the better it sounds. “Well I’ve had my share of bad times / I’ve been shooting them up / Drinking them down / Taking them pills / Fooling around all my life / But I’m so tired of bad times / I have to change my ways.” Very catchy tune, nicely rapped lyric. Along with the crackerjack instrumentation and rhythmic variety, there’s enough changes to keep it exciting.

Old Forgotten Soldier… back to the slow mournful piano ballad, this time augmented with bass and strummed acoustic guitar. Song is a sad but somewhat ironic story about an old soldier who feels forgotten: “I’m an old forgotten campaign hero / Left without a cause / Because they took away my war / I’m an old forgotten railroad / Broken, lonely, empty and no train / And my rusty ammunition / Has been left out in the rain / I’m an old forgotten part time doughboy / Who tried to save the world / The world was round …” Again, nice easy singalong kind of melody, with a sort of cabaret, last-drunk-at-the-bar feel. The piano part is lightly jazzy, then we get some whistling, which creates a neat effect – you can imagine this old dude wandering down some dusty old road. Great stuff.

Save The Last Dance For Me… piano, organ, tambourine, a warm sound, riding on the edge of that organ and a very clear, almost crooner vocal. Imagine that – Leithauser crooning, only faintly flecked with the roughs and crackles of his usual singing voice. There’s quite a bit of echo in here, and when the strings and bass join, it all merges together into a slow moving river of a song, “And don’t forget who’s taking you home / And in whose arms you gonna be / Oh darling, save the last dance for me.” It’s interesting hearing these tired old standards done by a band you like. What’s important to remember is that the Walkmen aren’t just covering The Drifters here, but rather they’re covering Nilsson and Lennon covering The Drifters, and damn they’re doing a great job of it. It’s the rich sound, and as always, Leithauser’s impassioned voice which keeps it interesting.

Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga… a John Lennon song: “Mucho mungo / Sweet thing / Sweetest little thing I’ve ever seen.” Wobbly organ line, and then into the second verse, but having heard this song several times, I find myself in great anticipation of that fantastic change into the second part, “Mt. Elga.” “But wait what’s this …” and then they move into the part about climbing a high mountain, with a neat syncopated melody between vocal and organ, conga, saxophone, glockenspiel and maracas. “C’est la c’est la / C’est la vie / Sail across the ocean / Sail with me.” Quite a ‘fun’ song. Well, two different songs stitched together.

Loop de Loop… huge drum roll, cheering, woohooing, clapping, whistling, and then we hear the whole crowd, with Leithauser sounding like he’s having a ball, as if he’s being carried around above everyone’s heads. “Here we go loop de loop / Here we go loop de li / Here we go loop de loop / Oh on a Saturday night.” That kazoo gets a serious look in, but we also have table saw, slide whistle and what they call the “Saturday Night Marcata ‘BBQ’ Chorus” performing vocals, claps, whoops and hollers. Crazy party stuff. Sounds like a blast.

Black Sails… trickly tinkly piano, and a vocal by someone called Rockwell, who’s unpretty singing voice sounds very much like any singer in the Flying Nun stable – that not-quite-in-tune feel. There’s no beat or bass for the first minute or so, just these tremulous piano and organ lines, and the vocal matches that timbre. Sometimes he doesn’t sound unlike Chris Knox. The song pauses midway before those piano parts and organ all descend together into flowing, rippling, sweeping lines, all bones and ivories, and a soaring faux-operatic vocal about a pirate who metaphorizes the woman he loves as a piece of treasure or a treasure island. A strange interlude.

Rock Around The Clock… just launches straight in, very fast, all fuzzy again, another chanted vocal in the manner of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” style, barely audible. A harshly recorded saxophone again, wood blocks, more table saw, more of everything, all blabbing out their squally lines. The pace is fast, the feel is jokey, like the idea is to make fun of the Bill Haley classic. Then someone starts yelling weird shit before the whole thing speeds up to twice its pace and it all sounds like a wild miasma of indiscernible flastic grizmythia.

Comparing this to Nilsson/Lennon’s effort, you can hear they’ve made an effort to copy the instrumentation and style of the original Pussycats quite closely. The Walkmen’s version is the better of the two, only for its richer sound and Leithauser’s quite wonderful vocal on most of these songs. It’s not something you’d play too often I suppose, partly because several of these songs feel too familiar, but it makes a great party record. They’d return to their original Bows + Arrows sound on the next album, You & Me.

About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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