Essential Classics: The Walkmen – Bows + Arrows

The Walkmen were one of the greatest indie rock bands of the new century, and with excellent solo debuts this year from former members Hamilton Leithauser, Peter Matthew Bauer, and Walter Martin, now is as good a time as any to go back and revisit one of their classics, Bows + Arrows.

But it’s not only the year that is appropriate, but this particular season as well–though Bows + Arrows is not a concept album per se, it does seem to revolve around a period in late December.  Not only do many of the song titles reference different aspects of the holiday season, from “No Christmas While I’m Talking” to “The North Pole” to “New Year’s Eve”; Even seemingly innocuous titles like “138th Street” help conjure up images of winter, as that particular is on the northern part of Manhattan.  In addition one can find musical and lyrical markers as well that recall this particular time of year.  The band’s unique “vintage” sound evokes in the listener feelings of nostalgia (or perhaps memories of a past real or imagined); this is due mainly to their trademark trebly guitars dipped in heavy reverb, accented by their unique warm organ flourishes, and filled out with a dash of rickety but energetic percussion.  In an era when seemingly every new rock act met at the same art school and came out of the same dive from the Lower East Side, The Walkmen stood out from the pack with a style all their own.

Even in their early years, The Walkmen seemed to have an air of maturity to their sound, or at least gave off the sense of a lived-in weariness that only comes from years of experience.  This is evident from even just a quick listen to their breakthrough hit, The Rat”.  The song revolves around an old friend or lover returning, but without having made amends for the transgression which led to a break in their relationship (to tie it in to our thesis, this is the kind of scene that would play out as people return to their hometowns for the holidays).  The song is a furious rocker, but in the midst of the raucous pounding drums and insistent tremolo-strummed guitars, there is the hauntingly gorgeous bridge: “When I used to go out, I’d know everyone I saw; now I go out alone, if I go out at all.”  In those two lines, The Walkmen captured the feeling that comes at the moment one realizes the fun of youth has receded, and now with that chapter closed there is the question of what to do next.  “The Rat” was great on its own, but that bridge made it transcendent.

“The Rat” definitely deserves all the accolades it has received over the years, but have long felt that “Thinking of a Dream I Had” is equally deserving of admiration.  The song kicks off with a galloping tom pattern (colored with some sleigh bells), and is matched by a boisterous and bouncy guitar part, before it runs headlong into a slow, delicate organ figure.  The contrast between the two sounds provides an intriguing juxtaposition, especially in the way it is combined with the chorus: the initial figure is the accompaniment for “I’m waiting on a subway line, I’m waiting for a train to arrive; I’m thinking of a dream I had,” but switches gears as Hamilton sings, “Maybe you’re right.”  At that moment, it gives the impression to the listener that this is a moment of true contemplation and reflection (as the verses seem to confirm).  It’s absolutely gorgeous.

The entire album is filled with great songs, but for those who are more familiar with the more polished work of the latter years of The Walkmen, some may be put off by the more raggedy production.  On the other hand, for many that is precisely part of the charm of this particular record.  Hamilton is still feeling out the edges of his unique voice, and to some his bark may be grating, but make no mistake, the man hits every note he wants as intended.  At the very least, one should enjoy Bows + Arrows for the reason that it’s one of the few modern rock albums that expertly deploys an organ.

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