Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Backbeat Band

It is my opinion that a great many bands, even a great many great bands, peak very very early, in some cases, even before their first album. Pavement's Watery, Domestic, R.E.M.'s Chronic Town, the first Arcade Fire EP, Nirvana's Incesticide-era stuff, all represent those bands at their freshest and most idealistic, and in these cases, I'll take the blueprint of their future sound over the actual building of their eventual songs. At the risk of sounding one of those pretentious instigating hipsters who say such things just to provoke outrage, I think The Beatles peaked with “Twist and Shout.” You can have your Abbey Road and Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper but I prefer The Beatles at this stage of the game, when their brand of rock-n-roll was in its purest form. The soundtrack to Backbeat is representative of this ideal; when there was nothing more exciting and innocent as being in a garage band with your best friends. No drugs, no money, no fame, no ego. No pretensions of changing the world and no delusions behind the meaning of what you're doing; just rock-n-roll for nothing more than the sake and the spirit of rock-n-roll.

The 1994 album is a veritable supergroup of the era's alt-rock stars, with Greg Dulli, Dave Grohl, Mike Mills, Thurston Moore and Don Fleming (with Dave Pirner chipping in), covering some of the best rock-n-roll songs ever recorded before The Beatles came along and changed everything. Twelve tracks of the best singer in rock-n-roll with a dream team behind him throwing themselves with reckless abandon on “Twist and Shout,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Rock 'N Roll Music,” “Please Mr. Postman,” and eight more glorious tracks that capture the purity of rock-n-roll at its most primitive in the days of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry.

Over the past couple years, this has been my go-to album when I can't decide what I want to listen to or when I don't feel like paying the attention a more sophisticated record may deserve. Clocking in at just under a half-hour, this is perfect record to play when you don't want (or need) anything more than delirious instant-gratification. And I'm so disappointed in the audience who were lucky and privileged enough to see the band live. How the fuck can they just sit there?


Pete Doherty is one of the more underrated songwriters of his generation, and it's a bit unfair to refer The Libertines as Britain's answer to The Strokes. Despite devoting a lot of time to shooting heroin and banging supermodels, Doherty has been a bit more prolific than Casablancas and Hammond, and the debut album from his post-Libertines output Babyshambles displays much of the songwriting chops that made Up the Bracket something of a modern classic.

Down in Albion has its share of duds and filler (“Sticks and Stones,” “Up in the Morning,” “Merry Go Round”) but for the most part it's a very solid, listenable record, with the sort of rambunctious rock-n-roll The Libertines were known for. Produced by The Clash's Mick Jones, it even shows flashes of London Calling-esque infusions of reggae. The standout tracks show off the kind of glorious songwriting that Doherty does best; songs that seem sloppy on the surface but are actually well-crafted anthems underneath the drunkenly disjointed structures. It's a rather surprisingly re-playable record, as I was a bit shocked to see that I've played all the songs at least 13 times, and the best songs on Down in Albion stand up to the best songs in The Libertines discography.

“Fuck Forever” is the clear gem of this record, though. Pete Doherty may be a fuck-up, but with a line like “I'm so clever / But clever ain't wise,” he's showing off a degree of self-awareness lacking in rock-n-roll stars with similar egos. I'm not completely caught up on Doherty's output since this record; 2007's Shotter's Nation and his 2009 solo record are unheard by me, but I'm in no rush to hear them, since for the most part, I can't stop playing all the great songs from his first three albums.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Walkmen - You and Me

Release Date: August 19, 2008

★★★★★ Tracks:

Dónde está la playa

On the Water

In the New Year

Canadian Girl

The Walkmen have put out three incredible records and the fourth (proper full length) is no different. You & Me is their best yet, a beautifully realized masterpiece revolving around love, loss and travel. The instrumentation builds upon the ideas they set in place with Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, but the scale is much grander. Violas, horns, and organs are all used to compliment that eerie Walkmen blend of classic rock’n’roll and current indie rock.

The sound on its own can conjure vivid images and location, while Hamilton’s raspy voice narrates us though his personal contemplations while in those places. On "Donde Esta La Playa," the drums and guitar combine to transport us to a moonlit beach, where we’re told a story of bitter lost love. “Canadian Girl” invokes 1950’s and ‘60’s do-wop without the actual ‘do-wop’ backing vocals, but when Leithauser croons, “and only I still call you mine,” you can hear the throw-back to old soul in his voice.

Although not old himself by any stretch, Hamilton was approaching that 30 year milestone during the production of You & Me, and he seems more distraught than ever over the direction of his life. Even the more optimistic tracks contain melancholy undertones: in “Red Moon” Hamilton longs for his lover while on the road, but “In the New Year” he is uncertain there is a future for them at all. The latter has a cynical tone to it, with a lovely waltz time, triumphant guitars and vocals, and lyrics of enthusiasm for the new year, but when combined with the organ and Hamilton’s last few lines it hints at impending doom:

"So it’s all over
It’s all over, anyhow
You took our sweet time
And finally I opened my eyes
My friends and my family
They are asking of me
How long will you ramble
How long will you still repeat
The snow is still falling
And I’m almost home
I’ll see you…"

“On the Water” is the strongest track here. The instrumentation sounds like the driving force to a gritty crime-noir, setting us up for lyrics focusing on a poor soul who has lost someone very close to him/her, perhaps in some tragic accident. The video’s premise only enforces the image.

You & Me is an album that lives in those fleeting moments right before the sun comes up, when one goes through those late-night ( and often drunken) reflections on life; intimate moments that feel powerful but difficult to put in to words. Well, difficult unless you are Hamilton Leithauser. Life can get more confusing as age and mounting responsibilities add up, but the experiences can become more exciting and rewarding. The Walkmen perfectly capture those feelings on You & Me, and in doing so they created the best record released in 2008.

Here’s a short clip of "Canadian Girl" from a show the Walkmen played at the Bell House in Brooklyn, courtesy of a friend I was with that night. Check out her awesome bathroom blog, Courtesy Flush, where there's a post from the Bell House up now.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off

Release Date: May 23, 2006

★★★★★ Tracks:


Danny's at the Wedding

I don’t know A Hundred Miles Off well yet, but I’m glad I’m getting familiar with it. An underrated album from an underrated band, the Walkmen continue tweaking their sound with each new record, never giving way to redundancy. While Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone was low-key and atmospheric, and Bows & Arrows was frenetic and loud, this one mixes sounds from both. But A Hundred Miles Off is not simply a mish-mash of old Walkmen ideas, they add Latin and European elements to the songs, allowing the use of their organ and brass section in ways they hadn't used them before. Both embellish the major-chord progressions perfectly, accompanying Leithauser's most upbeat lyrics to date.

The best song is perhaps the first one. “Louisiana” exudes all those great feelings you get when you hit the road, enjoy good company and take in the scenery. It’s got a lazy, summery feel to it which only increases the effectiveness of the lyrics. And when the brass section kicks in I'm immediately transported to a river boat heading down the Mississippi, on my way to the cajun riviera. Unfortunately I’m sure it looks nothing like it used to now.

"Lousiana" YouTube Link (Warner Bros./YouTube won't allow embedding.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Walkmen - Bows & Arrows

Release Date: February 2, 2004

★★★★★ Tracks:

The Rat

Little House of Savages

“The Rat” is proof some of the best songs written can come out of simple jam sessions. Matt Barrick was fucking around on his kit at band practice, riding his hi-hat at maximum velocity while mixing in some snare and bass in what essentially became the equivalent of playing a four minute long drum fill. I imagine the rest of the band’s ears perked up, and Paul Maroon blasted a few lightning fast chords over top with that signature guitar sound of his, the bass and electric organ joined in, adding complimentary undertones to the sonic mayhem that had just been constructed. Hamilton Leithauser scribbled down a few words in a few minutes and began to scream them as loudly as he could. The session culminated in to a song that has a loud, nervous kinetic energy that only briefly relinquishes for the greatest few lines of the song:

“When I used to go out I would know everyone that I saw
Now I go out alone if I go out at all”

Leithauser sings with such emotion (sounding similar to Paul Westerberg or Greg Dulli) you can’t help but get wrapped up in the heartache he’s experiencing. Bows & Arrows has a few more similarly outstanding tracks in “Little House of Savages” and “My Old Man.” But “The Rat” is the breadwinner, a track that most everyone had near the top of their list of best songs in 2004.

Look out for the Walkmen on Jimmy Fallon this week, 08/12.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Audio Two

Audio Two's “Top Billin'” exemplifies much of what makes hip-hop great. It has that great minimalist production with a danceable beat 80's hip-hop was so good at, with simple lyrics but clever wordplay (“I stole your girl while you was in prison” is one of my favorite lines in all of rap). It has all of the ambitious braggadocio, but it's relatively modest; the most impressive thing they have is a great big bodyguard.

Though it's actually the b-side to “Make it Funky,” this is possibly the most influential song in the history of hip-hop. I count more than 50 instances on wikipedia where “Top Billin'” has been referenced or sampled; this song is so popular, so classic, so ubiquitous in hip-hop culture, you've heard this song a million times even if you think you haven't.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Jeez, what a bizarre song. I mean, really. Such is my fascination that I've played this song 18 times before driving up the play count as I wrote this post. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” was the #1 song by Tony Orlando for four weeks in 1973. Though the practice of wearing yellow ribbons carried greater weight by women in wartime to announce their intent to wait for their soldier significant others to return home from fighting, the song's title requests a convict's old lover to give him a sign that he's still wanted at home upon release from jail. The song is exactly what you'd expect from a hit song by Tony Orlando & Dawn in 1973, the kind of song you'd laugh at if your teenage self went through your parents' record collection from their bell-bottomed phase.

But that version isn't what's on my ipod. It's the Aton version, courtesy of the awesome Home-Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul from the infinitely valuable Numero Group label. Like the other songs on this compilation, Aton is a pre-teen, post-Jackson 5 soul group who were ambitious enough to lay this song to record but not really good enough to do much else. But this cover is such an oddly hyper-sexualized version, with the crooning ad-libbing and the chants of “Yellow!” in the background that it makes one wonder what the hell the thinking was behind choosing this song. In retrospect, they were probably trying to capitalize on the Orlando version, which wasn't too far removed from its popularity at the time it was recorded. But between singing about a subject matter derivative of three different adult topics (sex, war, and jail), I can't decide if the choice is dementedly brilliant or just plain dementedly demented. Hear for yourself, and let me know if you don't end up listening to it several times just to wrap your head around the wtf factor of it all.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Walkmen - Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone

Release Date: March 26, 2002

★★★★★ Tracks:

Wake Up

French Vacation

We've Been Had

Hands down Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone wins coolest fucking album cover of the millennium so far -- a timeless photograph of late 19th century tough as nails, New York City newsboys. The record is pretty damn good, too.

I first heard the Walkmen through what is probably their most popular single, released a few years after this record, “The Rat." An immediately catchy and engaging song, it actually left me somewhat disappointed by most of the Walkmen I sampled thereafter. But after giving their records a few more chances I realized it was only because I was impatient, seeking the immediate gratification "The Rat" offered upon introduction. Once I learned that’s not what the Walkmen were all about, I was much better off.

Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone reveals itself slowly, as stronger tracks like “French Vacation" and “Wake Up” take a minimalist approach to instrumentation which could give off the illusion of being dull initially, but rewards for repeated listens. By constructing their own studio, carefully choosing their instruments and production style, the Walkmen create a uniquely eerie, classic rock'n'roll feel which allows plenty of space for the music to breathe. Most of the tracks expand their atmospheres as they further develop, dominated by an old-fashioned stand-up piano and Paul Maroon’s classic rock’n’roll guitar sound, probably compliments of a Gibson ES-135 or similar-style Back to the Future hollow-bodied guitar.

The best track is "We've Been Had," a song featured in a Saturn commercial, Hamilton Leithauser sings about the hardships of post-college life, and most likely more specifically moving to New York after school to try and pursue a music career -- something most of us NY transplants can relate to. A beautiful piano line accompanies him along for the ride.

"See me age 19 with some dumb haircut
From 1960 moving to New York City
Live with my friends there
We're all taking the same steps
They're foolish now"