Live: The Walkmen Spaz the Fuck Out
Hamilton Leithauser portrait / forehead-smackingly obvious visual pun by Grant Siedlecki
Walkmen + Mazarin + Nethers Webster Hall May 24, 2006
The Walkmen released their first album early in 2002, and I remember wondering how someone had managed to completely rip off the Strokes only like six months after Is This It? dropped. I was oversimplifying things, of course, but Hamilton Leithauser's ragged flirty rich-kid growl is always going to be pretty close to Julian Casablancas's ragged flirty rich-kid growl even when he's doing his best to not sound like Casablancas, dropping consonants and pinching his nose and trying out the inscrutable Dylan-mutter thing like he does on the new album. So it took me a while to hear the chaos in the Walkmen. Where the Strokes are bored and nonchalant, the Walkmen are queasy and jittery, guitars and drums and pianos all strained and scrambled, fighting against each other. It's like they'd like to settle into the kind of comfortable lope that the Strokes usually hit but they're afraid to. "The Rat," the best song they've written, is full of that club-kid desperation and bitterness and anxiety and bad faith, Leithauser pushing his Dean Martin broken-boozehound routine to the edge while the music swirls and crashes around him. You don't feel sorry for him because he's a mewling self-pitying rich dude, but you do sort of understand him, even if you don't want to.
The band dives further than ever before into that chaos on A Hundred Miles Off, their new album, but they don't sound quite so confident doing it, and none of it hits as hard, though I do love the line about "a hundred thousand blinking lights making me exhausted" on "Lost in Boston." It's like they tried to become more fierce and became less fierce in doing so because their whole ferocity came from their fight to be normal, if that makes any sense at all. But onstage at Webster Hall last night, they sounded like they'd fallen headlong into their own raging mental shitstorms, and it somehow came out glorious and triumphant. I'd never seen the band live before last night (unless seeing them lip-sync on The O.C. counts) (which it doesn't), so I can't say whether they've always had that destroyed authority onstage, but they wear the whole fear-and-loathing thing naturally; they're power-surge huge in person where they're sometimes just elegantly disheveled on record. Maybe it's the contrast between the music and the visuals. Leithauser looks a lot like Britt Daniel from Spoon, tall and blonde and handsome and clean-cut and well-dressed, not like those busted-ass slouchy Strokes dudes. He looks like he should be able to handle things, like the sort of person who gets put in charge of important projects whether or not he actually can handle those things. And here he's yowling out this jaded-disaffected-alienated stuff ("When I used to go out, I would know everyone one that I saw / Now I go out alone if I go out at all," I love that line) while tinny guitars scramble for footing all around him and the light guy finally figures out that it'll look really cool if he makes different-color spotlights flash really fast like it's the rocking-climactic end of a Coldplay song. When a couple of people came out to play sparkling trumpets on "Louisiana," it was weird and amazing to hear something so happy, like these things had just teleported in from Margaritaville.
Download: "The Rat" Voice review: Christina Rees on the Walkmen's Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone
A Hundred Nights Off ends with a cover of "Another One Goes By," a song from the Philly indie-rock group Mazarin. Mazarin also played last night, and it's a bit weird to see the Walkmen touring with and covering the songs of a band that sounds pretty much just like them. The difference is that the guy from Mazarin just sounds bored and nondescript, not anxious or desperate. Their music sits on the same scratchy-pretty axis, but it sounds better when you stop paying attention and it just fades into the background. The Walkmen won't let their stuff sink back. Also, Mazarin played "Another One Goes By," and the guy said that maybe the Walkmen would play it too; it was just kind of weird and uncomfortable. (I can't remember whether the Walkmen played it too.)
I'd never heard of Nethers, the opening band, and I missed at least half of their set, but what I saw was a truly pleasant surprise. One song was an instrumental, a woozy, narcotic guitar-fuzz groove except with these gorgeously crystal-clear riffs breaking through everything and just ringing over the top every once in a while. Another started out as a spare and pretty retro-folk-rock thing with glistening guitars and big, soft drums, but they gradually built it up into this intense whirlwind, frontwoman Nikki West's prettily numb vibrato taking on a struggling urgency. And another song was a nice little acoustic-country trifle. That was all I heard, and I wish I'd arrived in time for more. Nethers came pretty close to being the best band on the bill last night, and that's an achievement.
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