I’ve Got My Hands Full All Summer Long

paranoid cat

Walkmen covers and words on Walkmen

To celebrate the occasion of finishing my guest post about “dreams” in the songs of The Walkmen over at Matt’s blog “Songs About Radios“, here is the Heaps covering the Recoys / Walkmen song “Look Out Your Window” at our Return of the Living Heaps show in 2008:

(download)

[flute: Erin; piano: Matt; drums: Ben; acoustic guitars: Mike & Jesse; vocals & electric guitar: me]

Perhaps its a bit late to plug Matt’s blog (since he’s just moved back to Chicago), but “Songs About Radios” really is worth reading (even though he’s been too busy to update it recently).  One reason I stopped reading other mp3blogs regularly was that they would tend to just engage in indie idol worship/defamation and pontificate  about the incredible new songs they were posting without saying much of use about them; ultimately, I wanted the new music without any imprecise commentary.  Matt’s blog seems like a perfect antidote to this problem: instead of trying to be a cutting-edge tastemaker, Matt points us back to songs that may be familiar and offers refreshingly concise interventions designed to provoke a confrontation about what we already know.  I hope he continues writing it in Chicago.

Also, thanks to Joe for his blurb on The Heaps over at Popmatters!

WHAT’s GOOD (non-exhaustive): Cambinos BBQ in Cypress–huge delicious portions, worth the detour; far closer to L&L style Hawaiian BBQ than traditional cambodian food.  The footage of no-wave bands like DNA and James Chance in “Downtown 81.”  The onstage antics of Thee Oh Sees (yes, that’s the mic in his mouth).  The psychoretro of Nobunny. That episode of Pete and Pete where Pete recreates the song by BeachBoys-meets-Dodos garagepsych band The Ganglians–wait, what?

BONUS: Though I really like Matt’s blog and I agree that the Walkmen’s “You & Me”  is praiseworthy, I disagree with some of what he (and other reviewers) have said about how the album fits into the band’s career, but rather than squabble with the man on his own blog when he’s nice enough to let me guest-post, I figured I would vent my annoyance with the larger critical consensus about the album here (afterall, that’s what a person’s blog is for) instead.  While you read what I’ve got to say on the subject, here’s “No Fun to be at Northpole, Louisiana on New Years Eve”:

(download)

It’s a medley of 3 songs by The Walkmen and 1 by the Stooges that I recorded with just voice and (Jesse’s) acoustic shortly after the original Heaps line-up dissolved.  I like how my voice sounds like it’s tearing itself in half in some spots–the fun part of singing is mixing up the sweet and the savage, a lesson I learned in part from the Walkmen.

In his best of 2008 post, Matt lists The Walkmen’s “You & Me” as #6 and says “Oh, so this is what they’re supposed to sound like! […] it’s suddenly clear that what made those albums great wasn’t their post-punk pretensions, but the straight-up rock chops underneath.”  I think this observation would work better for a review of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Darkland”, the first album after they abandoned their commitment to eardrum piercing guitar feedback; the original J&MC sound was about shrieking for purely non-musical reasons but The Walkmen were not making noise just to make a point.  Since their first album, the band has been toying with the nerves of claustrophobics and agoraphobics alike on tracks like “The Blizzard of ‘96”, “No Christmas While I’m Talking”, and “Danny’s at the Wedding”, sonically creating spaces with walls and filling them with jagged objects courtesy of Hamilton Leithauser’s raw bleats, barks and yowls.

“You & Me” is a different album with a different approach; the tempo is dropped, the fuzz is filed down, and the acerbic monomania has been replaced by the minimal, subtle insistence of ¾ time, allowing for a different type of song approach, something more mopey than manic.  Perhaps this is a mood more people can relate to, something to sit in a rainy-night windowsill sipping Wild Turkey from a mug she gave you to rather than to listen to while trying to talk yourself into being excited to go drag racing with old high school friends you’ll never be close to again. NPR rock moderates who were previously kept at a distance by the vocals  can come closer because Ham’s using his “inside” voice now, using dissonance more instrumentally than aesthetically, such as the inarticulate, expressive yelp in the second verse of “On The Water” or the soaring chorus of “In The New Year.”  The shift seems like an organic exploration and it’s effective with this material–“accessibility” seems only to be an unfortunately profitable bi-product.

Should the band decide to continue waltzing inadvertently into the path of a broader audience afraid of neck veins and manage to put out ten more records, we can just call them the ‘junior Beatles’, for who in their right mind would write off the formulaic genius of those early hand holding, happy just to dance with you records just because they did something else later?  The fact that the Walkmen could make a great album without the haze, bitter stings, fuzz, et al. need not discredit postpunk aesthetics. But I respect Matt’s perspective here—the fuzz wasn’t catching him before, and this new direction does.  Fine.  The viewpoint that really irks me is people who act like the Walkmen had to come back from something.  Admittedly, releasing a shot-for-shot album-length cover of Harry Nilsson’s middling and perhaps deservedly obscure “Pussy Cats” album as a commercial product in 2006 was ill advised, but that was a failure of business, not aesthetics or purpose.  The band took on the challenge of recreating Nilsson’s album as a final tribute to their condemned self-built studio in New York.  As the buzz over Beck’s new project to cover an entire Velvet Underground album suggests, had they given it out as a download off their website for the faithful to lap up, they would have been lauded (or ignored, but not written off).

As for the previous record, “A Hundred Miles Off”, I think people were really punishing it for not giving us “The Rat II.”  The album represented the beginning of the stylistic “broadening” that has impressed Matt et al. but does not yet arrive at the critical safe harbor of (admittedly well done) 3/4 time and is thus vulnerable from both sides with accusations of enervation  and derivative Dylan-ation. The album as a whole hangs together as a phantom travelogue made of scraps of people and places, a direction continued by “You & Me.”  Since the band is apparently working on a new record this summer, we’ll soon have a chance to see whether the Walkmen are headed further down this road, back to the familiar “post punk pretensions” or somewhere else entirely.

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5 Responses to “I’ve Got My Hands Full All Summer Long”

  1. Just to clarify, I like the first two albums, and if anything, You & Me makes me appreciate them more. I’m not against post-punk aesthetics, and I used the word “pretensions” in the sense of “the laying of a claim to something” rather than in the sense of “pretending” or “pretentiousness.” My point was not that those albums shouldn’t make use of distortion, but rather that they didn’t need it. You & Me proves that the Walkmen can make a great album on the strength of their rock chops alone, which only goes to show that the style of the first two albums was not a substitute for, but rather a compliment to, their substance, which these days, is a substantive feat.

    Anyway, you make an excellent case for the third album, which has certainly grown on me as I’ve gotten into the fourth. In any case, the Walkmen are an indisputably great live act, and I can’t wait to see them again this summer at Pitchfork.

  2. […] EDIT: In conjunction with his post below, Milo Cantos has just posted a couple of Heaps covers of the Walkmen on Zombie Public Speaking, along with a pretty on the mark review of what this blog is trying to do. Read it here. […]

  3. […] Zombie Public Speaking « I’ve Got My Hands Full All Summer Long […]

  4. […] From the same “just guitar & voice” session that yielded my Walkmen medley, here’s me playing a medley of songs by the Yeah Yeah […]

  5. […] bottom design is, I admit, at least partially related to the “Sometimes I like to listen to The Walkmen” t-shirt I bought at one of their shows, but also to those things Avis would really like you […]

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