The Walkmen, Beach House / Jan. 20, 2009 / L.A. (Music Box)
Sometimes, you don't know whether to cheer or duck, and there were moments during Tuesday night's performance at The Music Box in Hollywood where both reactions were appropriate.
Leithauser is not the only band member who makes an arresting visual impression. Indeed, the pure physicality of the five gentlemen who comprise the Walkmen is an interesting microcosm of the band's musical identity.
Keyboardist Walter Martin, also quite large, is as aloof as he is quietly focused on stage. Guitarist Paul Maroon and bassist Peter Bauer are smaller, more rumpled and non-descript figures, rather difficult to place age-wise. Drummer Matt Barrick is downright tiny compared to his hulking frontman, but ironically packs perhaps the biggest musical wallop of them all.
The Walkmen's music mirrors its own corporeal image rather closely. The songs can be hard to pin down, distant but at times hugely commanding, alternatively massive and diminutive in sonics and scope. The tones are chronologically fuzzy as well, bringing to mind the early '50s as much as the early '90s. Lyrically, the sentiments conjure as much provocation as they do standoffishness.
Such layers make for a rather rich and texturally dense sound, but somehow still also allow the listener some room for personal interpretation. This is truly the Walkmen's secret recipe, and it has been finely seasoned on the band's newest release "You & Me," where all of the flavors combine into the Walkmen's most satisfying and consistent effort to date.
Opener "New Country," featuring Leithauser's voice accompanied only by Maroon's reverb-soaked Gretsch and a four-piece horn section, set a powerful mood for the rest of the evening, which the band was unable to maintain for the entirety of the set.
Shortly thereafter followed the evening's highlight, "In the New Year," which tied all of the seams together perfectly, jolting the audience to life after being appropriately dedicated to the Obamas. This song, perhaps the best in the band's entire canon, sounded infinitely better than its closest-thing-to-a-hit "The Rat" from 2004's "Bows + Arrows", which suffered a muddy, organ-heavy mix that seemed to swallow up some of the material performed from the band's previous albums.
"On the Water" and "Donde Esta La Playa" buoyed the atmosphere and continued the winning formula, as did the charming tropical breeze of "Canadian Girl." Finally, the gorgeous piano that failed to cut through most of the set was audible on encore "We've Been Had" which sounded even better than its album counterpart on 2002's "Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Now Gone".
A cover of the Kinks' "Come Dancing" made perfect sense as a finale, making great use of the horn section and Leithauser's spot-on impression of Ray Davies' impression of a happy-go-lucky Caribbean crooner.
The Walkmen are clearly knowledgeable about the depths of musical arrangement, vintage gear and recording techniques, and probably have near-encyclopedic awareness of genres and time periods of music that most people have never heard of. Accordingly, they seem careful to keep themselves contained in that world, far removed from the mainstream.
But sometimes, the walls the band has seemingly built around itself can be a hindrance to its music. Having the coolest rare bass guitar from the '50s doesn't mean it's going to provide a necessary low-end thrust to a rock song in 2009. Several songs suffered from this and wound up sounding like the band was playing with one hand tied behind its back. Instead, the Walkmen were at their best when using all that musical knowledge as a springboard to harness their own unique songwriting.
Baltimore's Beach House played a well-received opening set touching on material from both its albums, most notably from last year's "Devotion." Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally infused "Wedding Bell" and "Heart of Chambers" with beautifully interlaced guitar, keyboard and vocal melodies, loaded with delicious tones, misty melancholy and hazy ambience. The songs bled into each other with a monochromatic wash, but the coloring was interesting enough to hold the audience captive.