By Gabriel Mathews
So here we are, The Walkmen, one of biggest deals of the past fifteen years of indie rock, seem to basically have called it quits with an “extreme hiatus.” Three of the band’s members are putting out solo material sometime soon, but there’s only one anyone is likely to care much about— that would be frontman Hamilton Leithauser. Leithauser’s nasal yawping was probably The Walkmen’s most defining characteristic. His furious shouting on early records (see: “The Rat”) gave way to a much more gentle, melodic croon over the course of the band’s six records, culminating in Heaven, the band’s ostensible final album, which was downright lush in a way no one would have expected back when Bows + Arrows came out (see: “We Can’t Be Beat”). Now Leithauser is on the verge of releasing his first solo album, Black Hours, next month, and he brought his band to town to air out some of these songs. Leithauser’s popping neck veins as he strains his voice have always been the most talked about element of Walkmen shows, so this was reason enough to try and catch him “solo.”
I was really glad to find that the show had been moved from the El Rey, probably my least favorite venue in Los Angeles, to the Hotel Cafe after the album’s release date got pushed back by a month. Hotel Cafe is an intimate venue trying for an East-Village-inthe-Sixties feel, and mostly succeeding (if Inside Llewyn Davis is anything to judge by). The first ten feet out from the tiny stage are occupied by tables, the lighting set to “lounge.”
The less said about opener Alternate Routes, the better. Two dudes with two acoustic guitars and one porkpie hat, singing lines like “She was my stereo/I got lost in the audio” and “She didn’t get her momma’s hips/So she took her momma’s lipstick,” their spokesman/frontman spending more time talking about how he “tries to turn long run-on sentences into poetry” and “hopes he pulled it off this time” than actually playing his unbelievably mediocre adult-contemporary ballads. The most direct thing I can say about this band is that they apparently spent the last three weeks touring as part of Ingrid Michaelson’s band (no announcement has ever made more sense). Or, as my Concert Going Companion put it, “This is the music that rolls over the credits of bad romantic comedies.”
When Hamilton Leithauser and friends took the stage, I was worried they wouldn’t quite fit. Along with his core band, he brought with him a full five-piece string section. The violist did actually sort of have to hang out in the wings, and bassist Kevin Baker spent much of the set sitting atop his amp. The rest of the band was culled from the impressive supporting cast Leithauser had when making the record—including Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman, The Shins’ Richard Swift, and former-Blood-Brother/erstwhile-Fleet-Fox (WTF, right?) Morgan Henderson. Present last night were The Walkmen’s own Paul Maroon on guitar and piano, former French Kick Nick Stumpf on drums, and Stumpf’s sister Anna on backing vocals and piano.
(A word or two hundred about French Kicks—throughout high school, I was ridiculed for constantly asserting that French Kicks were a better band than The Walkmen. The two were compared constantly, not only because they were friends from school, but because they sounded quite similar. The Kicks got accused at every turn of “ripping off” their younger brothers, despite the fact that the two bands only sounded alike in the sense that two bands who come up together in the same scene probably will. I preferred the Kicks because the velvety croons of Stumpf and Josh Wise seemed like better singing than Leithauser’s adenoidal squawking. In retrospect, the two bands are hardly comparable, nor are their singing styles, but I still like the Kicks’ apparent swan song Swimming far better than any single Walkmen album. In any case, it was lovely to hear the equally supertall Stumpf and Leithauser sing together last night, their voices work incredibly well together, and it was probably the closest I’ll ever get to a French Kicks show.)
Leithauser spent the evening in seemingly good spirits, joking often about his mopey recording personality, (“This one is called ‘Self Pity.’ This is the one where we all just wallow in it.” “Anna’s gonna help me sing this one about our marriage [fictional], it’s called ‘I Will Never Love Again.”) When not playing guitar, he maintained his signature onstage pose, towering above everyone with one hand in his pocket, the other on the mic, head angled upwards. I finally understood why Leithauser’s neck veins bulge so much when he sings—the guy has a baritone speaking voice, and should probably spend more time in that range if he wants to keep singing for much longer.
Anyone would be forgiven for mistaking most of these songs for Walkmen songs—on top of Leithauser’s inimitable pipes, Maroon’s signature jangle has been a hallmark of just about every Walkmen track ever, and it’s all over these songs. That said, he did get the chance to break out of the rigid Walkmen structure a few times, like with his actually really tasty wah-wah solos on highlight “I Don’t Need Anyone.” Stumpf got to really wail, too, on rocker “I Will Never Love Again,” but a lot of these songs really could’ve used the nervy drumming of The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick. (Then again, so could most Walkmen songs.) “11 O’Clock Friday Night” made for a great time early in the set, standing out from the rest of the Walkmen-esque set by virtue of Maroon’s xylophone. But several songs harkened back to the mediocre Americana-isms of Walkmen misstep A Hundred Miles Off, a much less exciting touchstone, than, say, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone.
While we weren’t treated to any actual Walkmen songs, I didn’t feel cheated. It wouldn’t have been fair to expect this from Leithauser (or Maroon, for that matter)—they’ve earned the right to do other things. I just wish they’d branch out even more.