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February 13, 2004

New Walkmen CD proves pretentious press kits are worth ignoring

One of the dirty secrets that we music "journalists" keep locked away in a compartment (right next to our evil little hearts) is that good music reviews are almost never based on any sort of bias-free objective listening. Rather, we cultivate our own little sets of prejudices and fiercely defend our little fiefdom of musical interests from the murderous incursions of outside interests, ranging from our significant others to the music industry hype machine.

Although some of you may be truly surprised by these revelations (and if you're not, it means that the U of C has already begun to harden your soul), this is not always a bad thing. For critics, this defensiveness works to our advantage as a mechanism to channel our overbearing opinions into a more passionate plea. This might open a few eyes to sonic possibilities they might not have otherwise stumbled across.

However, for every time that I have used my "powers" (and I use that word in the loosest sense possible) to spread the word about some truly great band or performer, there exists nearly fifty other occasions when I reject something great for the most trivial of reasons. In one notable oversight, I had refused to listen to The Beach Boys' masterpiece, Pet Sounds, for nearly 10 years simply because it had animals on the cover.

It is because of this very peculiar musical myopia of mine that I have recently crafted a rigorous testing process that I undergo before I can write my record reviews in good faith. To begin, I force myself to listen to the album in question constantly for at least half-a-week. After I decide whether or not I like or dislike the record, I then proceed to the "peer testing phase" of the quality control process, arming myself to the teeth with an ink pen, a rather thick legal notebook, an insultingly ridiculous faux-Germanic accent, a monocle, and a decent stereo. Thus equipped, it is only then that I proceed to force my friends, family, and household pets to hear and critique the album while I sit on the couch scribbling furiously in my notebook muttering, "Interestink, verrrrry interestink."

Fortunately for me, I have found this rather intensive process to be both entertaining—I'm but a simple man with simple pleasures—and highly successful at helping me find albums that I would have otherwise ignored for various petty reasons. Take, for instance, Bows and Arrows, the new album from the darlings of the New York underground, the Walkmen.

Now, normally I refuse to have anything to do with bands that have press kits mentioning the Velvet Underground, as they tend to be obvious stabs at independent credibility written by wrinkly old white men in suits. And if these press kits make frequent attempts to remind you how hip and underground you'll be when you leave them out on your designer vintage coffee table, I immediately vomit. So, you can imagine my dismay when I was handed a faux-Bohemian Xeroxed press kit committing all the aforementioned sins and then some. I was beginning to think that my editors hated me.

And so, with a heavy heart, I popped Bows and Arrows into my car stereo. The minute I heard the weary droning of "What's In It For Me," my worst fears were immediately confirmed—my editors did in fact hate me, there was no god, and I was going to have to write 800 words about it. I was about to cry when the unthinkable happened—I decided to calmly, rationally, and without prejudice give this album a second spin. Just one objective listen. And then another

And then, before I knew it, I found myself playing this album for my friends, singing its praises. Instead of the brash, swaggeringly distant album I had hoped for, I found myself listening to an album of weary loneliness—and not in that frou-frou eyeliner and Cure covers sort of way, either. Bows and Arrows is not for listeners with iron-clad expectations—this album sneers at your pleadings to turn that damn frown upside down or even just to play something a little faster. It is unpredictable and mercurial, frequently switching moods while goading you to follow along.

From the savage lashings of "The Rat" to the plaintive "138th Street," Bows and Arrows pummels, kicks, and bites in the way that only an off-kilter rock album can. Snatches of ghostly keyboards float in and out of the mix, while the rhythm section flails away like a housewife attacking a cockroach with her shoe. Singer Hamilton Leithauser slurs and mumbles his way around the songs, narrowly avoiding collisions with stabbing guitars like a drunk in the middle of a busy intersection.

In short, Bows and Arrows is not an album for the incessantly cheery, nor is it immediately accessible for listeners like me who cling to our erroneous preconceptions. It is an album best suited for a specific mood and not suited for everybody (it's no Pet Sounds), but a fine album nonetheless. However, be forewarned: Bows and Arrows only displays just how good it is after it twists your arm behind your back and makes you cry "uncle!"