Burn Down The Record Stores!

Kids in the hall: The Walkmen
Anna Leithauser

Today is an 8. Challenges are like friends you don't recognize after major facial reconstruction surgery. The grade school of life has you writing "I will not" on the chalkboard, but you'll find a way to rephrase it as a positive that also saves precious chalk!

Average out a year's worth of horoscopes along with Robert Christgau's record guides and you'll discover it's a 7.8 world with a B- soundtrack. As if I needed someone more depressed than me to give me a case of the Mondays on a Saturday night. You can give my day a "10," but that doesn't necessarily mean it has a good beat and I can dance to it. The same wack cosmology holds true for record-rating systems. As the old saying goes, statistics only tell us about the statistic-makers, and nowhere is this notion more apt than in record-rating institutions like Pitchfork and the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll. It's like if economics is the Dismal Science that quantifies human desire, "critic's charts" are its Dismal Art.

I bring this up because the Walkmen's Bows + Arrows (Record Collection) is going to be on those critics' charts 10 months from now, and deservedly so. While this may say something about the Walkmen, I'm not sure what it says about the charts themselves--or more to the point, what the charts are supposed to be saying to me. Because here's the thing: "Quantitative rock criticism," while failing as both things the name implies, is still only a symptom of the actual problem, which is thinking in terms of singles and albums at all. These concepts aren't meaningful signifiers anymore in the era of iTunes, the iPod, and iDontGiveaFuckBecauseKazaaIsFree. For wired music fans, day-to-day listening is beyond the album or single, somewhere in a digital flux where consumers can finally exert something approaching control. And a good metaphor for this new phase of tech-driven, taste-determined listening is the mix tape.

Ten years ago, I would have described the Walkmen as a "mix tape band," which is really a pure compliment about their music: eleven first-songs-on-the-album from what seems like eleven different albums, right out of the cellophane. Bows + Arrows is open-source rock, a loose-knit passel of songs for the micromanaging of leisure: driving Anglo guitar pop diverted to your Workout Mixx CD, moody set pieces for a post-coital cool-down. Discontinuous and difficult to parse when taken as a whole, but somewhat close to brilliant when chopped into pieces, ripped, reburned, and recontextualized. How do you rate it, Dick Clark, when the band plays one note like an orchestra and two notes like one note, when they introduce Jandek to the Waterboys on one tune ("No Christmas While I'm Talking"), then drive them back into the alcoves with a wave of valve buzz on the next ("Little House of Savages")?

An album with this kind of forced continuity tends to stump critics and bring out their laziest tendencies. Where the band gets dissed for "stealing from" the Strokes (since guitarists are really just frustrated patent lawyers), I'd fault the Strokes for not capturing Boy-era U2 as well as the Walkmen, because there's two kinds of low-fi: the band that sounds like a room and the band that sounds like the idea of a room. That's what's kind of coy about the video for "The Rat": The cloistered black-and-white "rehearsal" footage plays against the giant space created by the Bakelite shear of guitarist Paul Maroon's hollow-body Gretsch and a careening double-time drum wash. When the refrain sinks in--"Can't you hear me, I'm bleeding on your wall/Can't you see me, I'm pounding on your door"--it's like the fictional room has already been breached, the love object gone; singer Hamilton Leithauser is smashing plaster and empty picture frames, screaming into a disconnected phone.

The next Walkmen song you should hear, though, is the second-to-last one on the album ("Thinking of a Dream I Had"). In between, you should have programmed quintessential Side Two drama like the Velvet Underground's "The Murder Mystery" or "2,000 Miles" by the Pretenders--not because the intervening songs are inferior, but because it's your mix, remember. Otherwise, in the strict but arbitrary narrative of an album, the creeping clamor of the Walkmen's drums would start to make too much sense, the organ becoming a mere hook in its native context rather than a crackling heartbroken monstrosity.

The title track finale, "Bows + Arrows," sits comfortably anywhere on your hard drive.

But it might make its new neighbors uneasy the way it stretches simple verse/chorus tension into its own entire verse while still managing to sound like a pop song--a collapsing quasar of a pop song that could swallow the next track whole if there were one. Which there isn't, but you can change that. Mix-making is mischief-making, an act that's close to, but not quite the same as, what really disturbs the RIAA deep in its shabby Victorian soul. The evolution of home electronics means tastes can't be tidily quantified anymore: There're no albums or singles, just songs, and bands like the Walkmen who write them at the outskirts of math and methodology.

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