Last week, legendary indie rock band The Walkmen announced that they would be reuniting for a handful of now sold-out hometown shows at NYC’s Webster Hall. These shows will be the first time the band will share a stage since announcing their “extreme hiatus” back in 2013. Given how many of their classmates from the Meet Me In The Bathroom-era of indie rock bands may have reunited to rekindle the magic, this decision have seen like an inevitable outcome to those only familiar with the group. But if you had been a fan for the whole run, the news was viewed as a welcome and out-of-left-field surprise.
Forming out of the ashes of the highly influential downtown New York post-punk band Jonathan Fire*Eater and Washington, DC’s The Recoys, The Walkmen featured five distinct players that acted as songwriting equals: Bassist and keys player Walter Martin, guitarist Paul Maroon, multi-instrumentalist Peter Matthew Bauer, electrifying drummer Matthew Barrick, and the one-of-a-kind singer Hamilton Leithauser—who also happens to be Martin’s cousin. With seven rich and varied albums, the band never quite reached the commercial success of some of their peers but made a name for themselves as critical darlings. As time has marched on, their influence has endured with the underclassmen who followed. You can hear their DNA with bands like Cold War Kids and early Vampire Weekend—Ezra Koenig was an intern at the band’s old Harlem Studio Marcata Recordings.
Like the Criterion Channel anointing this month as “Noir November,” listening to The Walkmen at this time of year is a comfort for me. With the trees all bare, the sun setting unreasonably early, and the air so crisp it can cling to your lungs as you exhale, their music is a perfect for soundtracking the possibilities of another year slipping through your grasp. With the news of their reunion, we at Paste decided it would be the right time to go through and rank the band’s impeccable discography.
7. ‘Pussy Cats’ Starring The Walkmen (2006)
In New York City, your living situation is always in a state of flux. The Walkmen found that out the hard way in 2006 as their long-running Harlem studio Marcata Recordings fell victim to a land grab by Columbia University forcing the band to find a new home for their operation. Before packing all their gear, they decided to record another album in the studio as one final goodbye. Rather than work on new material, the fellas opted to do a remarkably faithful track-for-track remake of the legendary John Lennon-produced Harry Nilsson album Pussy Cats. The band really went the extra mile to honor one of their cornerstone influences, with Leithauser doing his best to emulate Nilsson’s frayed vocals on that album’s opening Jimmy Cliff cover “Many Rivers To Cross.” Coming off the heels of three albums that could paint the band as, admirably, dour and self-serious at times, hearing them pour themselves into such a low-stakes project is a blast, but hardly an entry point if you are looking to dive into their rich catalog.
6. A Hundred Miles Off (2006)
Following up a breakthrough like Bows + Arrows was never going to be easy, and in many ways The Walkmen fell on their swords in the most valiant way possible with the ambitious A Hundred Miles Off. Infusing more of a nostalgic doo-wop haze and a dose of Americana on standouts like the marichi horn-aided “Louisiana” and the rumbling “Brandy Alexander,” the band tried to craft a record that would be seen as out of time—if not out of step with the times. The album’s biggest shortcoming is that they don’t fully commit to melding the dust-raising post-punk of their first two releases with this new direction quite as effectively as they would on future releases. In fact, save for the eerie pump organ drone of “All Hands on The Cook” and the band’s best attempt at a straight ahead hardcore song, “Tensley Town,” the rockers on A Hundred Miles Off seem to drag the album down. There are none of the amped-up numbers to really give Leithauser the chance to lay down the kind of buzzsaw vocal performance that only he can deliver. Perhaps the best track on the album is the closing cover of “Another One Goes By” by Mazarin. The band creates a wistful shuffle beneath Leithauser’s lovelorn croon, a showcase of the sentimental side that would be the band’s strong suit during the second half of their run.
5. Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone (2002)
Before anyone clutches their pearls at the low ranking of The Walkmen’s 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, I’ll remind you that we are dealing with razor sharp margins here. After all, this is a band that never released a clunker in their decade-plus run. Even though their first offering contains songs and soundscapes that establish and color their overall worldview, they would only become better songwriters and craftsmen the more they entered the studio. The puttering jabs of “Wake Up” and “That’s The Punch Line” set the template for the inebriated post-punk that they would only improve upon further down the line. What the album accomplishes best of all is the band’s ability to zoom out and focus on a mood as consistent as bleary eyes from an overnight drive with no hopes of stopping for sleep. Few of their contemporaries would be able to conjure this kind of consistency right out of the gate, but their attention to detail and preservation of the vibe is something The Walkmen had always managed to achieve. The best moment on the record is the Randy Newman-meets-Wire ballad “We’ve Been Had.” If the song had been positioned as track one, it would have gone down as one of the great introductions to any band of that era. As the slinky piano and Matt Barrick’s deconstructed beat glide along, Leithauser yelps about his hopes of fitting in with the times being washed away before they had a chance to blossom. “We’ve been had / You Say it’s over,” he snickers before delivering in the punchline of the chorus: “Somehow it got easy to laugh out loud.” It’s this kind of bruised world-weariness that set the band apart from the likes of triumphant indie classmates The Strokes and The White Stripes. The Walkmen were never afraid to admit that their outlook on success and faith in the future was fucked from the jump.
4. Heaven (2012)
According to the band, the recording of their 2012 swan song Heaven was somewhat of a brutal slog. But that is by no means attributed to the rigorous work schedule given by Pacific Northwest legend Phil Ek, more that the band had started to run out of steam after nearly over a decade as being more respected than as widely successful as some of their peers. That fatigue certainly shows through on the album at times. But while other groups have mined distress for their art, The Walkmen had similarly built an unimpeachable body of song built on the back dejection and exhaustion, with many of Heaven’s tracks ranking amongst their best. If there is one criticism you can have about the album, it’s that there is an almost smoothed edged assuredness to the performances and the song’s subject matter. For a band so well-known for having the hair on their backs raised like a cornered cat, the easy-going feel of pleasant rockers like “Heart Breaker” and “The Love You Love” can seem jarring. The group harmonies on the folky opener “We Can’t Be Beat” aided by Fleet Foxes Robin Pecknold point to a refinement of their songcraft. But no other song culminates their journey quite like the anthemic title track. Hammering between two-chords, the song is a poignant look back on the long road the group took on their way to becoming dignified elderstatesmen, and remembering what they fought to achieve as they leave it all behind.
3. Lisbon (2010)
The Walkmen didn’t necessarily need to reshuffle their sound after everything they were building towards congealed on their moody masterwok You & Me. But listening to it’s 2010 follow-up Lisbon, you get a sense that they had desired to ease up a little from being burried under the previous album’s ten-ton atmosphere. There’s a lightness to tracks like the opener “Juveniles” and the retro-pop of “Woe Is Me.” Most noticeably, the instruments and Leithauser’s vocals are no longer drenched in reverb or other obscuring production techniques as producer John Congelton keeps the focus on where every cymbal crash or trebly guitar lead sits within the room. If A Hundred Miles Off was an unsuccessful bridge between the ideas on group’s two masterworks, Bows + Arrows and You & Me, Lisbon is the band’s great second attempt at filling that gap. The tightly-coiled “Blue As Your Blood” sounds like a mezmerizing version of a garage band’s interpretation of Johnny Cash under gorgeous strings that swell around Leithauser’s rat pack croon. The mariachi horns from Miles return on the tender waltz “Stranded,” which stands as one of the bands great sympathetic loser ballads. If fans had been craving a suitable follow-up to The Walkmen’s most well-known song “The Rat” then Lisbon comes through ten-fold with the seering “Angela Surf City.” Built on one of Barrick’s most frantic drum beats, the song explodes with Leithauser howling like his voice can push bricks out of walls like Jenga blocks. The song encapsulates how great the band could be when everything fell into place, with a bitter narrative depicting the missteps that come with aging and the sobering realization that the main character of this story might not be you. “Back to school, back to work / Can this go on forever?” Leighthauser sings as the song comes to it’s stuttering end, “Angela, what’s the difference? Life goes on all around you.” Lisbon is perhaps the most cohesive effort The Walkmen ever produced, as it carries DNA from each record that came before it. If not for it’s follow-up Heaven, it would not have been a bad way to bow out.
2. Bows + Arrows (2004)
With the relative success of their debut Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, The Walkmen had a certain amount of juice going into its follow up. The band was able to track most of the album in their own studio nestled amidst Columbia University in Harlem, NY they dubbed “Marcata Recordings” and began producing a new album on their own. They wound up working on the songs that would become Bows + Arrows in different studios both in New York and elsewhere, but the final result would improve upon the clanging post-punk of their debut to create one of the great Winter in New York records. Maroon’s ringing tremolo guitars and the pulsating vintage pump organ played by Bauer and Martin—aided by a vacuum on the opener “What’s In It For Me”—create a white-out feel that recalls the relentlessly active city paralyzed by snowfall, calming it into submission. The album improves upon its predecessor in nearly every single way, with both the performances and songwriting reaching heights they had only grazed on their first outing. The album also anointed Leithauser as not only the best singer within the fertile scene in the five boroughs during the early aughts, but one of the best indie rock has ever produced. His sharp-edged and high-pitched caterwaul could blow fuses with its intensity and then sooth in delicate moments. That balance is struck perfectly here, as the ballads and bashers compliment each other exquisitely. With every broken dish in the “Little House of Savages” there is a contemplative stroll amidst the puffy flakes of snow falling on “138th Street.” But you can’t even think of this band without mentioning the imprint of their greatest and most enduring song, the elemental force that is “The Rat.” A true contender in the title for The Great Rock Songs of The 2000s, the song rages like a television set tumbling down the street, fracturing and gaining speed as it descends down hill. While other groups would use the thundering instrumental as a chance to showcase their exuberance, that was never The Walkmen’s style. For the song, they do the inverse, kicking against the idea that there was anywhere else to be than the Lower East Side. In fact, to the contrary, “you’ve got a nerve” to think he’d be doing you any favors or leaving his house anytime soon. “When I used to go out I knew everyone I saw / No I go out alone if I go out at all,” he sings plainly, not losing any sleep over the bars he’s not closing down with people he wouldn’t be caught dead partying with. It was an anthem for those who could see the good times for what they were, an escape from a cold reality waiting to collect its toll.
1. You & Me (2008)
The Walkmen approached greatness many times throughout their career, but their grandest hour is still the 2008 masterwork You & Me. Throughout its runtime, the band leans into a dark atmosphere that surrounds you like heat circulating in your car as heavy snow turns to slush on your windshield. Recorded and produced by the band at three different locations—Gigantic Studios in Manhattan, N.Y., Water Music in Hoboken, N.J., and Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mich.—the album is the group working at the height of their powers as a unit in the studio, as each element of their dreary Americana-meets-post-punk sound is not only heightened, but perfected in a way that feels like it has always been there somewhere in musical history. Rather than setting their sites on leaving a trail of wreckage behind them, there is a stately elegance to the songs which owes as much to Bob Dylan and Dion as it does to Royal Trux and The Pixies. While there was a clear divide of rockers vs. weepers on their previous high watermark Bows + Arrows, the band was able to take the genre experiments from A Hundred Miles Off as well as their re-tooling of Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats to figure out how to full utlilize their smokey balladry and agitated aggression into one consistent statement. Song after song, the band delivers its best written material with performances that feel both understated and brimming with exuberance. The album also finds Leithhauser coming into his own as a vocalist. Songs like “On The Water” and “New Country” find him in full control of his gin-soaked pipes, squeezing pathos out of every deflated lyric. While it’s hard to deny “The Rat,” You & Me contains the song that really defines the band at their peak, “In The New Year.” In just over four-minutes, Leithauser paints the picture of someone looking back on a life full of blown chances, clinging to their last hopes that the New Year could turn things around. A burdensome vagabond, he tests the patience of his family crashing on couch-to-couch. All of his friends have married his closest friends obliterating all secrecy of the things he’d like to keep hidden from his family. But against all odds, he remains unflappable. “I’m just like you / I never hear the bad news,” he sings exhausting all the air in his longs in one of the songs’ triumphant choruses. “And I never will / we won by a landslide.”
While we look back at the crop of bands that defined the early aughts, there is a lot of focus on which bands personified a resurgence of certain eras of “cool.” What The Walkmen were able to achieve on You & Me was something different altogether. They were able to soundtrack the downtrodden moments in a way that felt genuine rather than disposable.