The Walkmen are either the culmination of a horde of bands or merely the most recently crossed intersection of them. Considering their estimable talent, the best hope for their fans is obviously the former. However, there is an extraordinary history of success and immediate self-destruction behind them (as disappointed fans of Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys will attest). Including these recent casualties, members of the Walkmen have been in well over a dozen bands that have come and gone (and at least one other that remains active). Lessons to be learned from failure and exhaustion have, at the very least, made excellent fodder — musically and lyrically — for the band.
Matt Barick, Peter Bauer, Hamilton Leithauser, Paul Maroon and Walter Martin — the Walkmen — all are natives of the DC area and have known one another and made music together since childhood. (Martin and Leithauser are cousins.) Walter, Paul and Matt were a high school ska band called the Ignobles; after Paul’s brief run in the Fuzz, the trio joined Stewart Lupton and Tom Frank to form Jonathan Fire*Eater. The band moved to New York for college and played gigs at Columbia and elsewhere, gathering major buzz before recording a dismal debut album that can best be blamed on careless youth. Sounding like a Birthday Party tribute, the album is a forced mess of sloppy, dime-a-dozen, lounge lizard rock that might serve as background in a Robert Rodriguez film. Lupton does an adequate Nick Cave imitation, but the absence of gravitas leaves him sounding like a high schooler nursing his first hangover while bragging how totally wasted he got last night: “Can she drink, man? I gotta know soon!” he burps to no avail on “The Silver Surfer.” Musically, the album hardly bears mention, with no real melodies and a rhythm section that sounds as if it’s playing underwater. Martin’s keyboards do manage to cling to a beat, which is more than can be said of the attempts at drumming.
Jonathan Fire*Eater went rightfully unnoticed, so the single, “The Public Hanging of a Movie Star,” and the watershed EP that followed it managed to arrive seemingly unannounced. Lyrically, both are in a different league from the debut: the band mocks itself and the scene surrounding it. (From Tremble Under Boomlights‘s “Make it Precious”: “We were the princes of the diamond district / Every caper made it in the paper / We wear those black turtlenecks so tight / Curtains so tense will part for us tonight.”) Lupton, sobered up a bit and thinking hard enough to hold on to a melody, gives up the Cave act for his own voice, which isn’t so far removed from Jim Morrison’s. Crooning “The cyanide pacts of the underground set the stage for this brand new love I found” on “When Prince Was a Kid” (one of the single’s three tracks), he sounds downright sincere. The five-song EP brings the rest of the needed elements together. Barrick’s drums are confident and big; snare cracks lead the way on “Make It Precious.” Martin’s keyboards add melody while never missing a rhythmic step, and Maroon’s guitar adds color and a trembling, distant quality on such standouts as “The Search for Cherry Red” and “The Beautician.” In exchanging their sleazy lounge act for a more straightforward garage sound, JFE prefigured the even-more-hyped New York scene of the next decade, which would include both the Strokes and the Walkmen.
Moving into the corporate rock universe via DreamWorks, Jonathan Fire*Eater released Wolf Songs for Lambs, an album that owes something to the then-trendy lo-fi pop of Pavement. (Jim Waters, a veteran of albums by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Shonen Knife and others, produced.) Nevertheless, “The Shape of Things That Never Came,” with its tight guitar work, bouncing rhythm and odd chorus-free structure, is among the band’s best efforts. Moving closer to the future sound of the Walkmen, the band demonstrates impressive control here, but leaves Lupton’s oddball warble either clipped or jarring. In the excellent “A Night in the Nursery,” he sings a fitting farewell: “The den mothers hover all around you / The belle of the ball / Now the wine’s turned to gall.” With that, Jonathan Fire*Eater called it quits.
Toward the end of JFE’s existence, a slightly younger DC band which included Martin’s cousin Hamilton Leithauser opened for them in New York. The Recoys had a rougher, more energetically sarcastic take on the Jonathan Fire*Eater theme, throwing every bizarre element they could find into their loud garage rock, from honky-tonk harmonica to Moog synthesizer. The Recoys’ approach would find its way into later Walkmen material; they recorded the original (and arguably superior) versions of “That’s the Punchline,” “Look Out Your Window” and “Blizzard of ’93” (aka “Blizzard of ’96”). Leithauser’s vocals are a piercing slap in the face, but playful melodies and lyrics like “Well, there was always just a friend of mine / Who put Valentines / In her hair and mine / Red paper and blue; it’s true” are just too cute to be scary. Although the Recoys gave up before releasing a record, Rekoys compiles most of their material into an invaluable posthumous document of this unique and charming band.
Barrick, Martin and Maroon, meanwhile, took what was left of their DreamWorks advance to build the Marcata Studio in Harlem. Martin had joined the Lil’ Fighters, a Brooklyn band whose tribute song, “The Recoys,” is included on Rekoys. As much a collective as a band, the Lil’ Fighters play acoustic country folk with pop song structures and occasional forays into lo-fi rock and samba rhythms. Their hushed vocals never get in the way of cheerfulness, bringing to mind Yo La Tengo’s more sedate moments. After self-releasing an EP, the group recorded Boys and Girls at Marcata. The opening song, a cover of the soul classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” brings the sweetness out of the melancholy ballad without making much of a fuss. Original material follows the same guidelines. The whistling title track, a back and forth between the group’s boy and girl vocalists, lends a Romper Room innocence to infidelity: “I like the way you talk boy / You’re all right / But there’s something in our minds that makes us wander / So we wander tonight.” Martin, who switches instruments on nearly every song here, produced the second album, Freedom School, which is similar to the debut except that it allows songs to wander a bit in length and structure. More importantly for Martin, his old piano from the Marcata studios, which furthers the antique intimacy of the early Walkmen recordings, makes its first appearance on the Lil’ Fighters’ records.
The Marcata trio toured briefly as Today Okay before joining forces with ex-Recoys Liethauser and Peter Bauer to form the Walkmen. The Walkmen played a handful of shows in New York bars, got a deal and then released a self-titled EP debut. “Wake Up,” which opens the disc, is an appropriate beginning for the group. Quiet, intimate but driven, the song puts the musicians’ newfound chops on prominent display. In a compact three minutes, “We’ve Been Had” marries a fantastically catchy tune to a delicate, jaded feel. The lyrics, while ironic (“I’m a modern guy / I don’t care much for the go-go or the retro”), are honest about the band’s legacy of heartbreak. Barrick gets creative with his big snare sound, adding subtle and angular rhythmic elements with washing cymbals and chirpy rim shot punctuation. Maroon and Martin work the guitar and organ into accompanying echoes that are, by turns, haunting and inspiring. Leithauser, unlike the belting he did in the Recoys, holds notes and drops back when he needs to. The whole thing is held together by the band’s excellent production skills, best exemplified by the closing ballad, “Summer Stage,” which brings just enough fuzz to keep everything warm as Martin’s slightly out-of-tune piano chimes like a vintage music box.
The Walkmen are often compared to a young U2 because their direct moments have an anthemic quality that implies an agenda and Leithauser’s voice is as dynamic as Bono’s. This is evident in the songs on the follow-ups, a pair of mini-albums both dubbed 8 Songs, but commonly referred to by their cover colors, black and white. The black disc’s “Roll Down the Line” begins innocently enough with a jangling, tinny piano riff, while Leithauser gently coos, “What I needed most, I needed binds / And strangles with regret but still comes so easily.” The song crescendos around his cool delivery; by the time he’s repeating “an answer cut off,” he’s full-out howling. “I’m Never Bored,” the stunner that ends the white record, has Leithauser at his fist-pumping best over pounding drums, reeling keyboards and sweeping guitars of the kind that gets a stadium on its feet.
Most of those songs, including two Recoys remakes, are collected on Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. The following two years brought little new material from the Walkmen beyond a split EP with tourmates Calla. One of the two Walkmen songs is their third Recoys cover. The rendition of the lively, childish and very un-Walkmen-like “Look Out Your Window” is largely indistinguishable from the original and finds Leithauser sounding very much like his old self. That was a good barometer for Bows + Arrows. Repeating the career path of Jonathan Fire*Eater, the Walkmen signed to a major label for their second LP (Record Collection is a Warner Bros. imprint) and left the comforts of Marcata for studios in Memphis and Mississippi and actual producers (Stuart Sikes and Dave Sardy of, respectively, White Stripes and System of a Down fame) getting the band a more obvious rock sound. Martin’s warped piano and Leithauser’s restraint are almost entirely absent , although “138th Street” and “What’s in It for Me?” employ the weathered organs and shivering guitars of the band’s worn-down sound. “The Rat,” a powerful and affecting single, charges full steam ahead in a rock anthem that barely hesitates for a bridge in its verse-chorus-verse structure. With lyrics in the usual burnt-out vein (“When I used to go out, I’d know everyone I saw / Now, I go out alone, if I go out at all”), Leithauser is in full scream, less Bono than a cocaine-fueled Rod Stewart, but his theatrics are necessary to compete with the instrumental wall of sound. With Bows + Arrows, the band is openly demanding to be heard; it seems even the Walkmen believe they have finally built something to last.