The Walkmen

Review: Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

With The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr have crafted one of the most alluring and captivating albums of the year, one that provokes visceral and thoughtful reactions in equal measure.  Joe Casey’s straight-forward vocal delivery and the gloomy atmosphere produced by the rest of the band are an unusual combination that nevertheless leads to songs that are undeniably catchy, if unorthodox in nature.  The propulsive drive of the songs as well as the air of mystery in the lyrics help make The Agent Intellect one of the most gripping and entertaining albums of the year.

That is not to say that you should expect to see Protomartyr battling for a spot atop the Billboard charts.  Casey’s vocals are closer to the spoken-word screeds of Mark E. Smith of The Fall than traditional singing, and will probably turn off some of their potential audience.  Casey is more concerned with delivering his lyrics with just the right touch of dramatic flair, and he easily succeeds on that count.

The other members of the band provide an intriguing contrast to the vocals, often locking into melodies and patterns that do not necessarily line up with the vocals.  Instead, the focus is on creating a suitable ambiance, and it is here where their take on post-punk matches up with Casey’s work.  Greg Ahee’s guitars often bear the same trebly and reverb-soaked quality of The Walkmen, while Scott Davidson on bass and Alex Leonard on drums help drive the songs while also creating intriguing countermelodies and rhythms.  Together, they create a furious yet wonderful racket.

Protomartyr has solidified the promise that was present on last year’s Under Color of Official Right, and crystallizing many of that record’s ideas.  Each listen of The Agent Intellect reveals new standout tracks, but the album really works best as a cohesive whole, with one song leading into the next, with natural rises and falls.  Its best quality may be the fact that the record works great as both the subject of devoted listening as well as mere background music, which means you can enjoy repeated spins of the album without ever getting in danger of tiring of it.

Over the Weekend (Feb. 2 Edition)

Videos, news, and other fun stuff as you recover from the worst playcall of all-time…

The coffee in Seattle probably tastes extra bitter today after yesterday’s Super Bowl loss, but the weekend wasn’t a total bummer for them since Friday night saw the “reunion” of supergroup Mad Season for a special event.  Blabbermouth has videos of the show which featured original members Mike McCready and Barrett Martin joining the Seattle Symphony to perform a trio of the group’s songs.  The evening also featured guest appearances from other Seattle grunge superstars like Chris Cornell, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Matt Cameron, as well as native Seattleite Duff McKagan.  As an added bonus, the stars also performed a couple of songs from the classic Temple of the Dog tribute album.

Back on the other coast, there was an epic Jack White concert that included a special appearance from Q-Tip, as well as openers Run The Jewels performing with Zach de la Rocha on the fantastic “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”.  Consequence of Sound has videos of both performances because in all likelihood, you weren’t there.  Elsewhere in the city at a fall smaller venue, Hamilton Leithauser was performing, and with guitarist Paul Maroon debuted a few new songs that may be released in the future.  Considering how much we loved his solo debut, our excitement level is pretty high.

That said, you still had the chance to watch some excellent live performances from your couch this weekend, but if you missed out, we got you covered.  D’Angelo made his Saturday Night Live debut with songs from his new album Black Messiah, and The Black Keys went through a quick set on Austin City Limits featuring mostly recent material.  Stereogum has the links to the appropriate videos.

We also have a couple of new music videos this week.  First, Deerhoof released the video for “Black Pitch” from La Isla Bonita, and it revolves around singer Satomi Matsuzak enjoying the coastal scenery despite the cold temperature outside.

Then we have Run The Jewels’s second appearance in today’s linkfest, since they just put out a video for “Lie, Cheat, Steal”.

If you’re in the mood for lists which prominently feature the Pixies, we have a couple for you.  First, there’s PASTE ranking the 80 Best Albums of the 80’s, and then there’s Consequence of Sound looking at the Top 10 4AD albums for that record label’s thirty-fifth anniversary.

Have some fun thinking about the fact that Rick Rubin is now doing annotations for Genius, and then hurrying over to see what the guru has to say about the great songs that he worked on (and his thoughts on songs he did not).

Finally, spend the day listening to albums from the one holiday-appropriate band that there is for February 2.  We’ll help get you started.

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.

The Best Songs That Use Sleigh Bells

It’s time once again for another list, but this time we have one that’s a bit more season-appropriate.  Rust Is Just Right is ready to present to you the somewhat-definitive list of the “10 Best Songs That Use Sleigh Bells” that are in no way affiliated with Christmas.

10.  Death Cab for Cutie – “You Can Do Better Than Me”.  A selection that implies “we needed one more song to fill out this list” in more ways than one.

9. Grizzly Bear – “Ready, Able”.  A lot of people love this single off the excellent album Veckatimest, but it always felt a little incomplete for me.  But Grizzly Bear gets this spot because they often use a lot of unique percussion to great effect and should get credit for that effort, and I am at least certain that sleigh bells make an appearance (even if it’s a faint one) in this particular song.

8. Wilco – “Outta Mind (Outta Site)”.  While the raucous “Outtaside (Outta Mind)” has a nifty video, it’s the stripped-down reprise that’s augmented by the cheerful sound of sleigh bells.

7. The Replacements – “Kiss Me On The Bus”.  One of the highlights of the classic album Tim, you can hear the sleigh bells make their appearance on the final chorus, providing an intriguing color to the music.

6. Eric B. and Rakim – “Microphone Fiend”.  Built on a sample of Average White Band’s “Schoolboy Crush”, this is one of the landmark singles from the Golden Age of Hip-Hop and still sounds great today.  Always good to hear a smooth operator operating correctly.

5. The Walkmen – “Nightingales”.  The Walkmen were definitely not strangers to the allure of the sleigh bells, sprinkling their sound throughout their career, most notably on multiple songs from the beloved Bows + Arrows.  But we’re going to give the honor to this lovely track from their swan song Heaven, since it includes moments where the sleigh bells are given their time to shine.

4. The Hives – “Walk Idiot Walk”.  What should a band do as a follow-up for their huge break into the American charts?  If you’re The Hives, you write a single that uses the sleigh bells to keep time in the chorus for no particular reason.  If anything, it at least gives some insight to the casual listener that The Hives are willing to look outside the box of traditional garage rock sounds.  It’s too bad that Tyrannosaurus Hives has been neglected over the years, since it’s a fantastic album.

3. The Beach Boys – “God Only Knows”.  When you fill out your sound with a hundred-piece orchestra, you’re bound to have someone playing sleigh bells for some songs.  We’re going to go with one of the most beautiful songs in the deep catalog of the Beach Boys with this one.

2. Radiohead – “Airbag”.  Radiohead kicks off one of the defining albums of the 90’s with the sound of sleigh bells over sliced-up drum tracks, adding a touch of humanity to an opus about the haunting alienation of technology.  In a song about being miraculously saved from a car wreck, are we to assume that Santa was the savior?

1. The Stooges – “I Wanna Be Your Dog”

I don’t think there’s any argument here with this choice for the top spot.  Once you notice that insistent sleigh bells part chugging along with the rest of those buzzsaw guitars and ramshackle drums, it’s hard to get out of your head, and it adds a strange psychedelic element to the entire enterprise.

So there you have it–the greatest non-traditional Christmas song is “I Wanna Be Your Dog”.  Be sure to include it in your setlist tonight when you’re out caroling!

Catching Up On The Week (Oct. 3 Edition)

Some #longreads as you prepare for a weekend where you can finally stop writing about Project Pabst…

"God's Pickaxe"

“God’s Pickaxe”

SPIN did a series of interviews with the members of The Walkmen who went solo–first talking to Walter Martin, followed by Peter Matthew Bauer, and today publishing their piece on Hamilton Leithauser.  The fact that all three solo albums are brilliant and remarkably different from one another speaks to how amazing and underrated their band together was.

The AV Club did a roundtable discussing the massive re-release of Adore from the Smashing Pumpkins.  I disagree with most of the panelists about the merits of “Ava Adore” and “Perfect” (both of which I think are fine singles), but I agree with their main point that Adore as a whole is underrated.  A better piece is their Permanent Records feature on the classic from The Replacements, Let It Be.  Though I rank Tim slightly higher, it is still a landmark album worth plenty of discussion.

Gawker, of all places, has a great piece on OutKast’s homecoming show in Atlanta, discussing how their rise influenced a generation in hip-hop and helped the South make its mark on the genre.

Hamilton Leithauser, Live at the Doug Fir

Before heading out on Monday night to the Doug Fir, I thought of a night about ten years ago when I saw The Walkmen perform at the same venue.  To this day, it remains one of my favorite concert memories, as the band tore through a blistering set with such power that it felt like the lounge was ten times bigger than its actual size.  Hamilton would also recall that night fondly, mentioning a couple of times during the set that he remembered having a great time ten years ago.  It turns out we were both a little off in remembering the date (ten years ago I would not have been allowed into the venue–the show actually took place in the fall of 2007), but the performance Monday night was just as brilliant.

"In my younger and more vulnerable years..."

“In my younger and more vulnerable years…”

Hamilton proved once again that the Doug Fir is the best place to catch a show in all of Portland–it’s an intimate space where you can get up close and personal with the artist (there’s not a bad sightline anywhere), and the sound is always fantastic.  There’s never an issue with the mix, and each musical part can be heard with complete clarity–a quality you wouldn’t expect from such a small venue.  Though Hamilton employed a wide range of musicians and instruments on Black Hours, he kept it simple with his live setup–a quartet which featured fellow Walkmen bandmate Paul Maroon on guitar and xylophone, with a bassist and a spare drumset (reminiscent of the type of kit that Matt Barrick favored) filling out the support.  Even with the modest setup, Hamilton and crew captured the sounds of the album and thrilled the crowd.

Hamilton enthralled the crowd from the beginning, kicking things off with the passionate “I Don’t Need Anyone”.  He didn’t hold anything back, as he grabbed the microphone and leaned into the crowd to hit all the high notes with the loudest volume possible, testing the limits of the sound system.  Leithauser seemed to be rejuvenated as a solo artist, eager to fight his way back up through the ranks and prove his talents once again; he had more energy than I had seen in years.

Hamilton had control of the crowd before he hit the first chorus.

Hamilton had control of the crowd before he hit the first chorus.

Black Hours was already one of our favorite albums of the year, and it sounds just as great live, with Hamilton and the band bringing a thunderous energy to the music.  The performance had the added bonus of allowing the audience to see how the different songs and their particular arrangements would capture distinct aspects of Hamilton’s personality.  When Hamilton was just on vocals, it was a more lovelorn, bitter mood and it seemed as if he was baring his soul; when he picked up his acoustic guitar, like with the lead single “Alexandria”, the songs were more uplifting and he added a bit of swagger (with some stage moves that recalled a bit of Elvis, especially with some of the subtle hip thrusts); and finally, Hamilton with an electric guitar signified a more reflective spirit, with an air of contentment.  The variation provided an excellent ebb and flow to the show, which differed from the normal straight run-through of the album.  It also helped that Leithauser included a couple of the bonus tracks from the deluxe edition of the album–a passionate “I’ll Never Love Again” in particular convinced my friend that he needed to purchase the special edition vinyl as quickly as possible.

It was a fantastic performance, and we were talking about the shows for hours afterward.  We had a little bit of fun at the end, as I took a photo for a fan with him and Hamilton, and I hope that he enjoyed the goofy face that Hamilton provided.  It was a neat little detail that capped off one of the best shows of the year.

Review: Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation!

We’ve professed our love for The Walkmen on Rust Is Just Right on several occasions, but even we’re surprised at how much we’re enjoying all the new albums that have been released in the wake of the band’s recent hiatus.  A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the stellar solo debut of frontman Hamilton Leithauser, and now we’re doing the same for bassist/organist/guitarist/etc Peter Matthew Bauer.  We had never heard Bauer sing before, but we were at least familiar with his presence–his bouncing form was a trademark sight at any Walkmen show, and his instrumental parts were the key components to several of the band’s best songs.  There were high hopes in anticipation of Liberation!, but it was difficult to imagine what the final product would be.

There are still some elements of Bauer’s previous band to be found, most notably the distinctive trebly guitars and the basic but powerful drumbeats (the latter of which can probably be attributed to the presence of Walkmen co-member Matthew Barrick on percussion).  These touches don’t overwhelm the song, but fans of the band should be able to pick them out and appreciate them.  The shambolic solo guitar intro to “Irish Wake In Varanasi (For Big Pete Devlin)” recalls the great hit “The Rat” before switching gears into solid, driving rocker, and first single “Latin American Ficciones” seemingly could have evolved from a lost Walkmen track, an experiment where the band decided to switch vocal duties along with instrumental ones.

But Bauer mixes in a wide variety of unexpected influences into that basic template, including field recordings, latin touches, and most notably a stream of Eastern Indian instrumentation that runs throughout the album.  The integration of these musical influences also mirrors many of the lyrics and narrative themes of the album, as Bauer recounts his unique experiences and encounters stemming from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Scientology.  The album doesn’t look only to the past, however; after its delicate instrumental intro, “Philadelphia Raga” shifts into a slightly bouncy but breezy folk, echoing some of the recent work of contemporaries Real Estate and Kurt Vile.

The title Liberation! does seem to fit the album well, even without consulting the lyrics; there is a definite road-trip feel to the album, as if it were a soundtrack to an aimless but fruitful wandering across the country (and not a direct reference to releasing a solo album, considering the presence of Barrick and musical callbacks).  Bauer acquits himself just fine as a vocalist, carefully not exceeding his range, and makes use of his flat style to deliver his tales of the road in a convincing manner.  Though there are few moments that match the highlights of his previous band, Liberation! is still a nice surprise that’s worth repeated listens.

Catching Up On The Week (June 13 Edition)

For those of you who survive Friday the 13th and the full moon, here are some #longreads to get around to on your weekend.

Earlier this week, we had our review of Hamilton Leithauser’s solo debut, but for those of you who need an additional fix of The Walkmen, Drowned in Sound has the stream for Peter Matthew Bauer’s solo record Liberation! available on their site.  The stream wasn’t working for me when I checked, but maybe it will for you; at the very least, you can read Bauer’s track-by-track guide to the album.

Next week also sees the release of Familiars from the Antlers, and Pitchfork caught up with them for an interview.  The band talks about a couple of unexpected inspirations for the new album, including Twin Peaks and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Johnny Greenwood recently announced that Radiohead is taking a year off, which I guess counts as news if you were looking around and noticed, hey, it’s been…over a year since The King of Limbs, but people are reporting this anyway.  Read up to see what adventures Johnny has gone on in the meantime, and while you do that, be sure to check out these pictures that fifth graders drew after being subjected to Hail to the Thief.

Stereogum has a look back at Hot Fuss, since we celebrate the ten year anniversary of every decent album that we at the very least half-way remember/are likely to sing a couple songs while drunk at karaoke.  (Everybody thinks that they can sing “All These Things That I’ve Done”, but it’s tougher than it seems–they could probably do “Mr. Brightside” however, since the vocal melody is basically the same pitch throughout the song (that said, I still enjoy the album)).  However, this provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look in the days before their breakthrough release, and is worth checking out.

AV Club finishes up their “Fear of a Punk Decade” feature with a look at 1999 and…Jimmy Eat World, because that pretty much says everything you need to remember about punk in 1999.  Granted, there’s a much more in-depth discussion of a lot of other bands, but let it be known that was the hook to get you reading.

Normally we tend to keep things strictly music-related on this site, but considering the subject’s connection to music, we’ll say that you should take a look at The Hollywood Reporter’s quest  for answers to the suicide of Searching for Sugarman director Malik Bendjelloul.

And finally, SPIN interviews Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings about his recent collaboration with Wavves.  We’re pretty excited to see what the final result of that combination will be.

Review: Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours

In a week filled with great new releases, it’s Hamilton Leithauser’s Black Hours that outshines them all.  The debut album from the former frontman of The Walkmen masters the tricky conundrum that plagues every artist that goes solo: satisfying old fans while justifying the decision to go solo.  Hamilton indulges enough touches and signifiers that recall the unique sound of The Walkmen, while experimenting with new ideas and leaving enough of his own personal imprint that makes Black Hours a work distinct enough from his previous output.

Hamilton’s voice is one of the most recognizable in indie rock, and the full range of his rough-around-the-edges style is showcased throughout Black Hours.  He switches effortlessly between an exuberant bark (“Alexandra”), to a joyful serenade (“11 O’clock Friday Night”), to a delicate croon (“St. Mary’s County”), and that’s within the space of three songs.  The performance on Black Hours is reminiscent of the more recent Walkmen albums, where Hamilton learned to use the right amount of restraint with his voice, and not let its power get out of control.  That said, he can still let it out when he needs to, as he does on the exhilarating “Alexandra”.

Listeners should be able to pick out specific instrumental touches throughout Black Hours that evoke the trademark work of The Walkmen.  Most notably, there is the clean, trebly guitar that appears in songs like “I Don’t Need Anyone” and “Bless Your Heart”, so it should be no surprise that it’s former bandmate Paul Maroon that helps out with guitar, strings, piano, and organ on eight of the ten tracks.  There are other small callbacks that should grab the attention of Walkmen fans, most notably a chorus form “11 O’clock Friday Night” of “You and me and everybody else” that seems designed to specifically evoke one of their best-received albums.

Even with all these details that hearken back to his previous band, Hamilton does enough to separate Black Hours from his previous work.  “5 Am” is a spare, haunting ballad that would fit nicely in Leonard Cohen’s back catalog, and “The Silent Orchestra” continues with that retro-ish feel with the use of a playful backing orchestra, a style befitting that of a classic Dean Martin or Sinatra record.  There’s the goofy marimba from “11 O’Clock Friday Night”, which sets the tone with a melody that rips off the old “Updated Score” sound from ESPN’s BottomLine ticker, and is soon matched by a prominent bass and embellished by the guitar.  The careful use of strings throughout the album add a new dimension to many of the songs, but most effectively on “Self-Pity”.  In the end, Hamilton doesn’t fully escape the identity of his old band; album closer “The Smallest Splinter” would fit perfectly within the tracklist for Heaven, and the careful, midtempo ballad is one of the highlights of the album.  But that’s okay–when you were a member of one of the best indie rock bands of the past decade, no one should complain that the new music sounds a little bit like the old stuff.