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The Walkmen take it easy in their new album “Lisbon

Mackenzie Hendrickson | Friday, September 24, 2010

The Walkmen’s career has been a 10-year musical presentation of “taking a chill pill.” Starting off with post-punk revival fury in the early 2000’s, they have progressively calmed down their sound without loosing their smooth pessimism. One of their earlier songs, “Rat,” was an angry look at 21st century disconnectedness. “Lisbon,” their newest effort, sounds like a bunch of buddies sitting in a sunroom, playing anthems about how life is kind of awful, but… whatever.


Bands and producers will go to extraordinary lengths to produce a record with a unified sound, something you could describe in pedestrian terms. This approach is best when intended to match what is going on in the music thematically, melodically etc. (Springsteen wanted “Born To Run” to sound like transistor radio glory from the 1950’s to match the songs cinematic romanticism). Creating this sound is one sort of success. Having this sound make sense within the context of the album is another. More often than not, bands achieve the first but leave the listeners unsure about the second.  “Lisbon” achieves both.


For production quality, there is no error or inconsistency. The songs sound as if they were all recorded at the same time. Aside from a few musicians coming and going, and perhaps a few cigarette breaks – everything else remains the exact same. Ideally, bands would love to record an album in one inspired sitting.  This being a nearly impossible approach (even the fastest albums taking at least two weeks), the best a band can do is fake it. Lisbon does this well. The guitar remains almost untouched, sounding like sun-dried electric blues malaise on every track. The drums can be strong at times, but it all fits within Lisbon’s flattened brightness. The songs get more and more ballad-like as the album concludes; this is a peculiar progression considering the opening track is almost a ballad.


Unlike many other artistically confused bands, this sound makes complete sense in light of what front man Hamilton Leithauser is singing about. The band is the same old down-and-out collective they were back in 2003, but this time there is an element of acceptance. Before, they were young. They were pissed. They wanted to be heard. Now they’ve retired to the sonic countryside, where life’s a little calmer and little sunnier. Leithauser can sound like Dylan on a few tracks and Brandon Flowers on others, which is cool.  His pessimism is an appropriate mix of “Blowin’ In the Wind” helplessness and “Mr. Brightside” misfortune.


“Angela Surf City” is the home run on the album.  The drums skip along at a rapid beach hop. The bright guitar, as with other songs on the album, sounds as if it could care less what the drums are doing. “Stranded” sounds more like an album closer than a mid-record cut, but shines nonetheless. This actually makes sense within an album with more than its fair share of tracks that could be exit music for a tragic film.


There’s one problem in all this: the songs just aren’t that pleasing in a modern sense. They move along at a Sinatra swagger too relaxed for the attention span of the 21st century music audience. The songs can come off as bland and uninteresting to even the mellowest among us. “Lisbon” won’t please listeners as much as fellow New York balladeers The National. There are no cliché catchy elements. No appeals to popular culture. Nothing blogging nerds could claim as the sound of the future. It’s immediately and forever indie. For some that’s a huge negative. For others, that’s what makes a solid record.