The Walkmen and Me, or How ‘You And Me’ turns me into an emo scribe

I suppose I should preface all of this by admitting – I am emo for The Walkmen. By now, I’ve seen them play in every possible scenario: Large Los Angeles concert hall, cramped Austin 6th street bar, alongside the Queen Mary at the All Tomorrows Parties festival, at an all night warehouse rave somewhere in the plains of Texas, various festivals and smoky clubs. I’ve seen them more times than I’ve seen my beloved Radiohead. Hell, I’ve even paid to see them. I have them on I tunes. I have them on CD. I have them on vinyl. I don’t pay for music unless I really, really love them. I love the Walkmen so much I’d marry them (my dowry offer to Ham is ready for review).

Hamilton at All Tomorrow's Parties
Hamilton at All Tomorrow

Coming from a rock chick such as myself, this might surprise you. If you looked at the boys, you wouldn’t even suspect that they can play in a band. No, with their unassuming and sweet looks, you’d think that they work in your office, down the hall in the graphics department; Button down shirts, neatly tucked into jeans and chinos, with a belt of course. Nothing flashier than a simple wedding band or old class ring as bling. No bravado or swagger. But don’t let their prep school appearance fool you. You will be transformed.

Hamilton Leithauser

Long before Vampire weekend or Chester French made preppy chic again, The Walkmen rose from the ashes of two great bands. Hamilton Leithauser, who could be perfectly cast as a‘soc’ in the Outsiders though he has the angst of a greaser, had formed the Recoys in Boston and then joined up with former classmates from the defunct Jonathan Fire Eater. The band members remain close, churning out more than an album’s worth in any recording process, and still finding time for side projects such as recording a cover of Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats, recording a staged reading of Sex And The City (seriously), and co-writing the Great American Novel. Apparently the novel seems to be taking a lot more time than they thought to finish – tell me about it, boys. Tell me about it.

The Walkmen

With BOWS AND ARROWS, they had a break out hit with ‘The Rat’, a blistering account of a soul broken by a split. I’ve even heard that it was written about a mutual friend in the Brooklyn indie rock circle, but I decline to name him. Perhaps you can figure it out when you read my forthcoming book (shameless plug).

YOU AND ME, the latest album, unofficially dropped in July in a unique way. With their creative contemporaries such as Radiohead and Trent Reznor offering the music online as a pay what you can scenario, The Walkmen teamed up with Amie Street and offered a download for a $5 donation to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. So now, if you were going to even think about downloading it illegally, bear in mind that the boys are donating the proceeds to a cancer charity. Even I, who gets her music for free, clicked on paypal for this. An advance of one of the greatest albums of the year – AND I get to help fight cancer? Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

But what exactly is it about The Walkmen that captures my fancy? It’s hard to put a finger on it. Once when posed with the task of describing the sound of The Walkmen, a friend said it sounded like drunken fairy saloon music. I think that is far too passive and sweet a description. It’s more like elfin mad scientists drunk on absinthe turning wooden knobs at a Narnian console.

Their dirge-ish songs alternate in flavor. Sometimes big band, sometimes calypso or country, you are listening to the soundtrack to a weekend in an Irish pub or a stormy Caribbean vacation. Or perhaps this is the music of the underworld that Orfeo’s true love heard when she was stuck on the other side. Lest the sounds get too sweet, the lyrics can be like a thousand little cynical papercuts. “What’s in it for me….I heard you the first time.”, “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor…we’ve been through this before.” “I don’t get some people, but I don’t really try.”, and titles like “Revenge wears no wristwatch”, “This job is killing me”, “Everyone who pretended to like me is gone” These reveal a certain callous and unsympathetic look at what once was happy times. I suppose it’s the duality which resonates with me. The inner idealist wrestling with the voice who has seen disappointment – a ‘fuck you’ to over-sentimentality, which by nature is somewhat sentimental.

Ham at SxSW
Ham at SxSW

The show at the Troubadour was all of this and more. The guys, armed with a horn section, took the stage in an un-assuming, modest way, but hit the crowd confidently with a beautiful, ethereal, punk wall of sound. The performance was so startling and arresting, and then lulling and then engaging.

Paul Maroon of The Walkmen

Ham’s voice, an odd yelping cry which wavers between a Bob Dylan call to arms and a raspy Rod Stewart growl is an unique layer a top the swirling Wurlitzer and big band orchestrals. His fist over the mic like an MC, with the cord wrapped tightly around his arm, pulling on it, tourniquet style, he howled and yelped in epileptic fits, accessing and channeling some type of Brando rage.

Hamilton as Brando

There’s a sense of hearkening back when you’re listening in on them. Maybe it’s the vintage gear, or their somewhat formal and almost polite appearance. But one does feel like Hamilton is yearning for a time when people respected each other and did the right thing.

The Walkmen at the Troubadour

Of course nostalgia can be dangerous – looking at the past for those golden moments, and glorifying a time which was most likely the same mix of heaven and hell, is not an enlightened place to start from. But it is the stuff that bar dirges are made of. And old Hollywood movies. And sweeping novels. It is this magical lightning in a bottle, that the Walkmen capture for me. A bit of gilded memory with the somewhat sour taste of the present.

In fact, while listening to their set, this is what the music made me imagine:

The smell of library books. An empty field at twilight. A pork pie hat with a madras plaid band. Mass held at an all boys Catholic boarding school. A black and white Robert Doisneau photograph. The first time reading JD Salinger or Mark Twain. An old Frenchman covering Bob Dylan. A 400 year old pub on the cliffs of Dover. The ignited sugar cube dropped into a glass of illegal absinthe. Dickie Greenleaf in a late night jazz club. A flamenco dance on a honeymoon.

I can only blame The Walkmen and their gorgeous music for making me emoscribe like this. I want to go for a walk in a rainstorm. I want to smoke cloves while watching the sun set. I want to go plant a freaking tree. See? YOU AND ME has turned me into a mushy mess of flowery prose. Who knows? If I keep listening, perhaps I may just finish my Great American Novel.

The Walkmen perform at the Troubadour Friday, August, 22, 2008. Their latest album, You And Me was released on August 19th.

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