Of all the bands that burst from New York in the early ’00s, The Walkmen were the least defined by locale. The city’s nervy post-punk heritage fed directly into the kind of music popularised by The Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, just as its dynamic club culture motored LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture. The Walkmen, by contrast, seemed aligned to another place and time.
This may be partly due to pure geography. All five members – Hamilton Leithauser, Paul Maroon, Walter Martin, Matt Barrick and Peter Bauer – had initially met at school and played in bands around Washington DC, 200-odd miles away. More pertinently though, there was a shared predilection for vintage gear and studio dynamics patented during the first flush of rock’n’roll. Once in New York, having formed from the remnants of Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Recoys, The Walkmen offered a riveting (if sometimes wayward) mix of ’60s minimalism and voluminous art rock, at its most potent on 2004’s killer single “The Rat”.
By 2006, however, after deciding to cut an ad hoc version of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon’s 1974 album Pussy Cats, the band appeared to have lost their way. Their label subsequently dropped them. Against a perilous backdrop – no record company, studio or manager – The Walkmen started work on what became You & Me.
Adversity had a profound effect. Written over two years, with band members split between New York and Philadelphia, The Walkmen tapped into the spirit of their favourite records from the late ’50s and early ’60s for inspiration: Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly. The new songs left space between the grooves, allowing for echoey ambience and a moody sense of abstraction. There was fresh adventurism too, with guitarist Paul Maroon adding judicious brass and strings.
You & Me feels like a grand statement. The Walkmen prove themselves still capable of a fierce racket, but Leithauser comes into his own as an anguished balladeer, heightened by Maroon’s cavernous guitar and drummer Matt Barrick’s extraordinary percussion. Indeed, Barrick is the album’s secret weapon, creating syncopated rhythms and textures that steer these songs towards something more expressionist in tone.
“Dónde Está La Playa” emerges from a murky start into a series of clattery peaks and ominous lulls, Leithauser’s flailing confessional mapping out an emotional world of booze, partying and doomed romance: “I know that you’re married, rings on your hand/So I didn’t stay ’til the end”. The commanding “On The Water” is similarly locked in despair, the narrator heading home, probably drunk, beneath a swinging skyline, branches bending low. Leithauser sounds like a wounded Dylan, the music gathering around him in a busy storm.
He’s still dreaming of home as “Red Moon” looms into view. Leithauser yearns to be beside his loved one, his baleful tones mirrored by Maroon’s lonely trumpet, echoing across an empty night. The lyrics are hopeful, yet undercut by warning metaphors: riptides, darkness, light glinting from a steel knife. Even Leithauser’s optimism (and there’s a fair deal of it) appears misplaced. The booming avant-rock of “In The New Year” – set to squealing organ and flashing guitars – looks forward to a fresh start but its protagonist’s words ring hollow. “I know that it’s true/It’s gonna be a good year”, yelps Leithauser at his most impassioned. “Out of the darkness/And into the fire”. And by the time of penultimate track “I Lost You” (a Motown-ish wonder with Barrick in imperious form), the river’s overflowing, the house is burning down and Leithauser is pleading for a lifeline.
In the spring of 2009, nearly a year after You & Me’s release, The Walkmen decamped to Memphis to film a session at Sun Studios for PBS. The hitherto unreleased tracks finally appear on this edition. The key difference, aside from the surroundings, is the addition of a five-piece horn section, led by ex-Bar-Kays trumpeter Ben Cauley, the sole survivor of the plane crash that wiped out Otis Redding and his bandmates in 1967.
There are variations on tracks from You & Me (including an admirably funky “Canadian Girl”), though the highlight is a slightly older Walkmen tune, “Louisiana”. It’s a wonderful moment, like The VU’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” reimagined as humid Stax soul, rising into an immense finale. And while the sessions would directly inspire their next effort, 2010’s Lisbon, The Walkmen have You & Me to thank for ushering in the superior second phase of their career. They may no longer be around, but this album proves they still matter.