September 7, 2010

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Douglas Martin briefly worked at The Bait Shop, due to the small miracle known as “affirmative action”.

Lo-fi? Chillwave? The Walkmen have never been a band to blindly follow trends or capture a zeitgeist by other people’s standards. They seem to be a band that takes pride in not being able to name their top-ten records from the past year, because they haven’t even heard ten records released in that time frame. Formed after the dissolution of the decidedly meh Recoys and Jonathan Fire*Eater, a group whose latent prickishness immensely superseded the quality of their music, The Walkmen huffed at New York’s so-called “New Rock Revolution” with a debut record full of rickety pianos and guitars swathed in reverb, when most bands were satisfied with reliving the post-punk era and playing along with click-tracks so everyone would be tricked into thinking they had rhythm.

They followed their debut with Bows + Arrows, a rare rock record that doesn’t really sound like anything before it, spearheaded by a manic single about being dangerously close to kicking a former friend’s teeth in, which somehow managed to find its way onto both late-night television and teen dramas. Say, whatever happened to that Seth Cohen dude? He had great hair. Or, more importantly, whatever happened to Death Cab for Cutie?

After a string of records, one good-but-underwhelming (A Hundred Miles Off), one completely tossed-off (their take on Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, a covers record of a covers record), and one near-perfect (You & Me), the boys in the Walkmen started writing their new record with Portugal in mind, naming the collection of songs after the country’s capital. Their noted influences pointed back farther than most current bands go, past the well-traversed 80’s, 70’s, and even the 60’s. Sun Records was name-dropped. A song called “Angela Surf City” made the tracklisting. The Walkmen were looking to reimagine themselves as participants of the first decade of rock ‘n roll, an era where people actually didn’t feel stupid for using the term “rock ‘n roll”.

This isn’t particularly new ground for them. “Juveniles” carries a bright guitar figure not entirely dissimilar from A Hundred Miles Off opener “Louisiana,” save for maybe a couple of trumpets. Singer Hamilton Leithauser tests his vocal range and explores lyrical themes of betrayal and conflict, ending the song by shouting the refrain, “You’re one of us, or one of them.” The aforementioned 50’s influence is most apparent in Leithauser’s lyrics, which he uses to hit on a Spanish-speaking girl in “Blue as Your Blood.”

An unintended consequence of the previously mentioned songs being the most lyrically noteworthy, is that they’re also the most musically interesting. “Woe is Me” finds a lively guitar line carried by shuffling drums, while “Blue as Your Blood” couples understated verses with a cascading hook and “Victory” succeeds with the most exploding chorus on the entire record. Which is not to say that those are the only excellent tracks on the record– “Follow the Leader”, with its noisy-but-jangly guitars, is outstanding given its brevity. While the aforementioned “Angela Surf City” is the most immediate of the bunch. Yet the latter-half of the record generally lags, akin to the boredom of hanging out in the parking lot between closing time and bedtime.

The sounds explored on Lisbon aren’t as drastic a change-of-pace as fans of The Walkmen anticipated, such as those tried out on A Hundred Miles Off and You & Me. But Lisbon comes across as more streamlined than either of those records– a record that sets out to do more with less. Still, there’s something about it that makes it feel like a little too much to fully enjoy. Their consistency remains intact, but maybe next time around, they’ll be farther ahead of the curve by staying behind the times. –DM

Download:
MP3: The Walkmen-“Juveniles”
MP3: The Walkmen-“Woe is Me”