In an age when bands are giving albums away, letting buyers name their own price, selling them exclusively at Wal-Mart, selling them for $0.49 at Amazon, driving by your house and throwing them at your dad as he waters the lawn in pale khaki shorts and black socks, and so forth, hats off to the Walkmen. Hats friggin' off to the Walkmen. This New York band is giving away all the proceeds from sales of its new album, You & Me, out yesterday, to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Buy the album digitally for $5 at Amie Street. It will be sold this way for three weeks, then it'll come out on vinyl and stuff, and the Walkmen might eventually start to make a little profit. But it's always been clear that the Walkmen aren't in this for the money.
Granted, "We've Been Had," a song from the group's first album, was used in a car commercial. Since then, the Walkmen have been honing a noisy, clamorous sound that's anything but commercial. With the exception of sophomore-album single "The Rat" and a couple of other songs, the group has been conducting studies in the marketability (or perhaps unmarketability) of unhooky, ragged, sustained-chord guitar noise, churchlike organs, stretched-to-the-limit solo vocals and great but random cover projects. At their worst, as on 2006's A Hundred Miles Off, they sound inaccessible and overly artsy, like an indie flick from a director with all the right hip pedigree that refuses to be coherent or entertaining.
With a balance of roil and melody, You & Me should reconcile the current Walkmen with fans of the band's earlier material. This comes through strongest on "In the New Year," with singer Hamilton Leithauser crying out in his fillings-loosening tenor It's gonna be a good year over a triumphant organ riff.
There's still plenty of vintage-amp racket all over the album, and the tempos throughout aren't fast enough to disturb a sleeping drunk, but the heart's in it this time -- and it's all the better for its aching world weariness. Eugene, I've lost the world as we know it ... I've lived in a suitcase for too long, Leithauser bellows on the waltzing, broke-ass "Seven Years of Holidays," introducing a dizzy travel motif reflected in song titles like "Donde Esta La Playa?" "Postcards from Tiny Islands," "Canadian Girl," "Four Provinces," "The Blue Route," and "New Country." Faint steel drum and a lonesome melody worthy of Harry Belafonte make the lovely "Long Time Ahead of Us" a rum-drunk tropical lullaby. The Walkmen maybe be skinny NYC noisemongers, but throughout You & Me, they channel the thoughts and moods of a Graham Greene protagonist sweating, moping and hatching plans over a glass of booze at remote island cantina.
Covering the likes of Harry Nilsson and Leonard Cohen in the past, Leithauser has proven himself a remarkable song interpreter. With his band mates and their songwriting back in step with Leithauser's dynamism, the Walkmen may not be ready to conquer the world, but they can certainly keep travelling it, collecting stories, blues and songs. -- Jason Harper