”Out of the darkness, and into the fire”

February 20, 2009 at 5:06 pm (Gigs) (, , , , )

The Walkmen – Concorde2, Brighton – 19/02/09

This wasn’t in the script. At a time in which even the freshest, most overly hyped new bands are barely given the chance to step foot inside a recording studio for the second time, the future of groups such as The Walkmen looked bleak indeed.

Having garnered a fair amount of interest with their debut and follow up ‘Bows & Arrows’ (not least as 2/5ths of the group had jumped ship from the critically lauded Jonathan Fire*Eater), it seemed that the band were falling further from public attention with every release. Live performances were less and less cohesive, and the group seemed to be losing its way and short on confidence. This is, of course, a fairly understandable state of affairs. After all, when you release one of the greatest singles of the decade and still no one’s really heard of you, it must get a little demoralising.

However, the band didn’t fizzle out or implode into a snarling alcoholic mess as some may have feared. Instead they settled down, took stock, and then to the unprecedented step of taking two years off to write and record the excellent ‘You & Me’ which has not only re-ignited some of that early critical acclaim, but brought them back to into the public eye. That they did this by reigning in some of the anger and clatter of their previous efforts and making a smoother, better paced and more organic sounding record is more surprising still.

So the crowd at the Concorde tonight is a bit of a curious mix. We have the devotees who have stuck with the band and are now rather smugly relishing the fact that they have been with them from the beginning, casual fans who remember their early promise and been stirred into life by the bands recent renaissance, and, most intriguingly, a small gaggle of kids, swelled by recent reviews in Pitchfork and DIS who seem a bit bemused that their new heroes are over the age of 25.

The band themselves seem invigorated and actually in pretty good spirits, showing admirable patience with the small vocal majority continually calling for ‘The Rat’. A large proportion of the material comes from the new album and somehow sounds both highly polished and fresh, with every element of the band’s huge reverb soaked wall of noise pitching in unison. Peter Bauer’s constant thronging bass ensures a collective unity that underpins the flanged out, almost surf-like rolling guitar of Canadian Girl, and the swampy organ chimes that are liberally dabbed on to ‘In The New Year’.

There is a real sense of confidence about the band, with singer Hamilton Leithauser happy to stand centre stage and allow the band to play around him, the guitar and organ lines being left to slowly marinade, pushed forward by Matt Barrick’s subtle drum work. This approach works beautifully on songs such the fragile encore ‘New Country’, with Leithauser standing stock still at the front of the stage, with a single guitar line undulating beneath his tender vocals.

Leithauser himself has never sounded better. The more rounded approach of his vocal work on ‘You & Me’ coming over perfectly live, infusing older songs such as ‘138th Street’ with a new found clarity and direction. His voice is still used in part as part instrument, part weapon of ear-splitting destruction, but the effect of having it higher in the mix on their latest album seems to have galvanised Leithauser into ensuring that every note, even those throat ravaging cries near the top of his register, are hit.

The Rat is finally delivered towards the end of the set, sounding every bit as powerful, contemptuous and lonely as when it first thrust the band onto MTV screens all over America. The difference now is that its power is offset by an ever increasing army of songs that are in turns beautiful, playful, fragile and exuberant, and that have given the band the confidence they may have needed to play in the way they always wanted to. In short, the new album, from its elongated recording process to the positive reactions engendered by the finished product has helped free the band from just being ‘those guys who did ‘The Rat’’ to a group with the self belief to make music on their own terms. In doing so they’ve made one of the best albums of the last year, and possibly the finest work of their careers. On this showing it could well be one that finally fulfils its promise.

Review now up on Brighton Magazine.co.uk

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