Friday, 7 June 2013

Guest Top 5 Songs by The Walkmen by Justin Howell

Justin writes the prodigious website Station To Station which has enough music content to keep you amused for years. He recently ran a Top Artists of All Time readers poll which spanned several months and was a lot of fun to take part in (even if the Pixies failed to win). So, I'm delighted to hand the reigns over to Justin for his top five songs by American East Coast indie rockers The Walkmen.

I'm usually not good at picking a topic for a list but once I've got one lodged in place (a random thought or usually, a moment with the IPOD) I can get a clearer vision of what that list will be. This list came to me when I dropped my 5 1/2 month old daughter Sydney at daycare Wednesday. It's funny, the first thing I thought of when Chop asked me for a Guest Top 5 was Five Songs I'd Sing To Entertain A 5 Month Old...but each 5 month old is different and mine is really digging only 4 songs I sing to her right now (James Brown medley of Get On Up/I Feel Good, Passion Pit-I'll Be Alright, R.E.M.-Stand and Elton John-I'm Still Standing which she REALLY is fascinated by). Anyways, we get in the car and "Sound & Vision" is the first song that bops us along on a gorgeous spring day for the 4 minute jaunt to home care for Sydney. The IPOD in the car is usually set to a mix of new stuff I'm digging (Foxygen, Phosphorescent, Kurt Vile, Mikal Cronin, etc.) and favorites from my past. Sydney seems impartial to Bowie when I stop to drop her off. Her mood is neither enlightened nor frustrated from the glimmering keys and stutter beat of the "Low" classic. Maybe she'll dance to it when she's older. It's when I get back in the car and start my way to work that the next song jump starts this Top 5 in an instant. "Little House Of Savages" from The Walkmen's 2004 LP "Bows + Arrows".

I'm staring at 40 in late September. The first thing that comes to mind is reflection when I hear the pulsating drumming of Matt Berrick and the wail of Hamilton Leithauser reminding me "Someone is waiting for me at home." The Walkmen have officially taken up a decade of my 30's. Is it tough to stomach that 9 years have gone by since the first time I saw them perform "The Rat" on late night TV? Not at all. But it seems like such a long time ago now. I rushed out the next week and bought "Bows + Arrows" and a few weeks later got their debut "Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone." They were in modest rotation for me for awhile but their follow up "A Hundred Miles Off" left me a bit cold with the band. Maybe I'd had my fill after two LPs (though "Louisiana" from the album which just missed this five is still a great horn driven fiesta). It wasn't until a friend mentioned to me how great "You & Me" was in 2008 that I got back on The Walkmen train for their next three albums. The Walkmen have usually been consistent to me. Born out of the garage revival of bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes but much more savvy to just stay juxtaposed to just that sound. Their "rockers" are tour de a Walkmen sort of way. Their mid-tempo songs aim to make you nod your head in cool and cocky agreement. Their ballads make you swoon along with Leithauser's torch song like delivery. They are as complete a band as there is in the decade of my 30's. Their lack of a real pop sensibility is the only thing that has held them back from mass appeal.

I got to go see them live in my hometown of Pittsburgh in 2010. Seemed like a great bill with Japandroids opening up for them (another favorite band from my "late" 30's period). And it was a good show even if a Japandroids fan who accidentally snatched my PBR for a moment insisted that The Walkmen pretty much blew. I shrugged that off quickly. Sure they aren't an anthem laden machine like Japandroids are. They are their own entity with a hint of underlying loneliness brought together by strong songwriting and a whole lot of yearning instead of righteous declarations. Maybe the bill was a mismatch. But it was worth the 350 mile trip back home to just see "New Country" performed in the Walkmen's encore. Give me back my beer.

Oddly enough, I wouldn't point to them as the band that defined the past ten years for me either. There are several artists I'd put ahead of them (Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, The National, TV On The Radio, Animal Collective, Spoon, Drive By Truckers to name a few). If this was a list to name ten bands from my 30's I'll hold dear forever, I'm afraid the Walkmen would even fall out of that group. They're the guys you want to hang out with at the pub and eat spaghetti with before their concerts. Not the rock stars who are going to exhilarate you to pump your fist in the air and tell a stranger "Hey, have you ever heard of the Walkmen before?" If other artists I've admired from the past 10 years were honor roll students, The Walkmen were the B+ students who took the same classes as the smart kids but didn't participate in extra curricular activities for anyone to take any notice. I've never pushed for anyone to listen to the band or recommended them to anyone. But yet here they are with a decade worth of strong material as I look at a new decade for myself peaking it's head at me around the corner. And they keep popping up on my IPOD this Wednesday. "The Love You Love" from their 2012 release "Heaven" has me singing along as I edit at work on Wednesday morning. I find myself crooning along with Leithauser to "Stranded" and it's gorgeous horns from their Portugal infused and aptly titled "Lisbon" from 2010. It's like the band and My IPOD are telling me to dust off my 5 favorites and send them to a blog overseas because though I've visited England once in 2010 for a vacation of London and Dublin, I didn't leave a mark behind. Only an Oyster card for the Tube that I didn't use all the pounds I paid for it. So here's what I'll send back to the UK. My TOP 5 songs from the Walkmen....we'll say my 18th or 22nd favorite band of my 30's. (Looks like I need to get on that list of bands in October).

The Walkmen: Dad's 18th favorite band of his 30's

5. In The New Year
Anytime Leithauser is waxing shiny optimism on the surface you have to take it as either a comical or sarcastic approach. So the fact that he croons "It's gonna be a good year" comes off as hokey (See Lisbon's "Victory" for another happy ironic loser). And the jangly guitar intro is standard Walkmen fare. So what makes "In The New Year" great then? That brilliant Christmas time organ that rises up from the fire like a phoenix and holds on to each chord with stranglehold force. Oh, and Leithauser delivers my second favorite Walkmen line of all time "Out of the darkness, and INTO THE FIRE!" with so much conviction you want to buy the guy a pint and listen to his gospel. Is this a good song to play every New Year's Eve. Absolutely! Especially if your sisters have married all your friends and if your family is asking you how long will you ramble. Damn straight the next year is gonna be a better year.

4. Angela Surf City
You say the Walkmen can't do surf music? Yeah it doesn't seem plausible but here's a song where all of The Walkmen's strengths click at once. Silky romanticism, a roaring chorus, persistent percussion and a whole lot of great guitar work. And Leithauser sings this one to the rafters instead of shouting it out to the neighbors across the street. It showed the band maturing and incorporating a lot of great elements on a terribly underrated album with "Lisbon." It's coda ends with a bittersweet reminder that it's back to work and school and that life goes on all around you. I wonder if he won that girls' heart or not?

3. Heaven
2012's release of "Heaven" by the Walkmen left me thinking the band had lost a fire they once kindled on the first few listens but I admit it grew on me slowly through the year. This wasn't the same band that exhibited an uncanny passion for sloppy but smart nocturnal songs anymore. They sounded more mature in their songwriting. Nowhere is that on display as much as on the self titled song from that album. The chorus is angelic in every sense of the word. Leithauser delivers the line: "Remember, remember...all we fight for" with a conviction he never showed before. And the band sound as convincing as ever too. Growing up is hard to do especially in music but they pulled it off on songs like "Heaven."

2. The Rat
"When I used to go out I knew everyone I saw, now I go out alone if I go out at all." Favorite line in a song in my 30's? Well it's pretty close to perfect. And "The Rat" is pretty much perfect all together as a song. It rages without being pretentious. It tugs at your emotions with thoughtful simple call outs. Sure Leithauser sounds like a gravelly Rod Stewart to me even nine years on. His one line call outs of a relationship deteriorating is nothing short of breath taking. And as for the rest of the band on "The Rat"? Well they play with as much REAL intensity as anyone in the past decade. I love the way the bass comes in on the second line of each verse. "The Rat" is a locomotive in all terms of a song, one of the best of the 00's. "Can't you hear me I'm pounding on your door!!!!!"

1. Four Provinces
So I've got two "You & Me" songs in my 5 (along with "In The New Year"). "Four Provinces" has all the trade marks that make me want to feel alive in a song. A bossa nova backdrop, jangly high end guitars, stories of heartbreak, gin, cigars and an actual bar I believe called Sophia's Place, and that bridge where the guitars glide alongside a tambourine....I absolutely love "Four Provinces". Leithauser in the chorus garbles with a drunken undertone to his love "Hey Leah, am I getting through?" And then tries a little bit of flirtation "Your shining eyes are brighter in the moonlight." That one's for each of us that have tried a dumb line or twenty in a bar before. For all the heartbreak and half drunken tales of frustration that the Walkmen have crafted, nothing tops "Four Provinces" for me. It would be my number 1, although "The Rat" is probably their best moment.


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