Back in 2002, Startime International had an arsenal of young rock bands including French Kicks, the Natural History, the Joggers, and the Walkmen. They were all unfairly compared to the Strokes, and they all shared some aesthetic similarities -- razor sharp guitars, swinging percussion, crooning vocals. But based on their understated debut from that year, Everyone Who Used to Like Me Is Gone, it would have been hard to predict the Walkmen as the break-out stars of that group.
The band has earned its notoriety since that jangly debut, however, building a strong reputation on increasingly expansive, and impressive, records. The guitars, once tight and cutting, now stretch out wide enough to make the Edge blush. 2008's You & Me spread those guitars as far as they would go, the chords melting into hazy impressions of chords, but the songs held together with just enough shape and Hamilton Leithauser's charming croon acting as tour guide through the album's hazy landscape.
Lisbon, however, succeeds in not following its predecessor. You & Me was a success, for sure, but the Walkmen have always been best when they mesh their knack for thick textures with a seriously rocking base (go back and listen to Bows & Arrows if you don't believe me). And this record, particularly early on, delivers some purely great rock songs. "Angela Surf City," with its crashing drums and Leithauser channeling the rock bravado of Faces-era Rod Stewart, may surpass "The Rat" as the best song in the band's catalog. The surprisingly lean "Blue as Your Blood" has a subtle drive that sneaks up on you, while "Woe is Me" is all sun-drenched energy. Even a meadering song like "Victory" gathers itself together for a towering chorus and fuzzed-out, churning finish.
It's not all out and out rockers on Lisbon, but overall the album has a steady and vital pulse to it. Those tangled textures need sturdy foundations -- and who wants to underuse a drummer like Matt Barrick, anyway? -- so even when this record slows down, on the lilting "Stranded" or a stranger set piece like "Follow the Leader," you can feel Barrick digging in and grounding them as they stretch out.
The last few songs do settle back into the more understated sound of the last record. While none of them misfire -- "Torch Song" is the best of the final third -- the wandering quiet of "While I Shovel the Snow" or the title track feel a little slight after all the dynamic performances we've already heard on the album. It makes for an anti-climax to an album that builds fiercely toward one.
That said, it is still awfully good. Lisbon is another great record in an admirably consistent discography. It's got a drive and precision to it we didn't see on the last record and it reminds us that, for all their intricacy and texture, the Walkmen are one of the great rock bands going.
Oh, and when was the last time we heard anything good from the Strokes?
Two years after the Walkmen's sexy, subdued You & Me, the band members find themselves at a musical crossroads. To expand a horn-filled, soulful sound, return to their gritty rock roots, or stylistically shift for their fifth studio album? Early indications point to a hybrid of these three possibilities. While the sneak previewed "Stranded" waltzes in step with You & Me, frontman Hamilton Leithauser notes that Lisbon is “really stripped down.” However, with a wistfully surreal album cover and working track titles such as "Sports Ball" and "Muscles," the end product is anyone’s guess. But, isn’t that how album releases should be?
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