If it’s unwise to judge a book by its jacket, it’s equally dodgy to do the same with CDs. Take the Walkmen, another in a seemingly endless parade of retro-rock bands — this one from New York and including members of the late Jonathan Fire*Eater. The Walkmen’s 2002 debut sported a brilliantly morose title — ”Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone” — but the music, a peculiar fusion of ravaged cabaret and new-wave rehash, felt unformed. The band’s second album, Bows and Arrows, has a far less inspiring name, but don’t be misled: It not only features their best work but manages to crack open a few new windows in the generally restrictive garage-rock revival.
The Walkmen share several traits with their Manhattan neighbors the Strokes. Singer and guitarist Hamilton Leithauser has the same enervated delivery as Julian Casablancas, and the music is similarly rooted in the guitar drone of the Velvet Underground and Television. But ”Bows and Arrows” is everything the Strokes’ sophomore jinx ”Room on Fire” wasn’t. Where the latter felt like leftovers, ”Bows and Arrows” reveals a band that’s grown tighter, hungrier, and more varied since last time.
The Walkmen’s power announces itself on ”The Rat,” a merciless blur of drums, guitars, and organ that threatens to spin out of control but never does. Practically gasping for breath, Leithauser spews cryptic lyrics about an apparent love-hate relationship: ”You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number,” he sings, before shifting to ”Can’t you hear me, I’m pounding on your door.” While ”The Rat” pledges allegiance to everyone from U2 to Sonic Youth, it isn’t beholden to any of its influences. In its four and a half minutes, the Walkmen come into their own.
”The Rat” is so dynamic that it may be hard for another band of this ilk to top it this year. The Walkmen themselves don’t even try, spending the rest of the album exploring other sonic playgrounds. The gloriously torpid ”What’s in It for Me” and the queasy ”No Christmas While I’m Talking” sound as if they were recorded in a drug-induced haze; they could have doubled as love themes for ”Requiem for a Dream.” Setting Leithauser’s voice to a desolate piano in the morning-after lament ”Hang On Siobhan,” the band dares to be delicate and, in so doing, invents garage-band mood music.
The Walkmen understand two vital elements of rock & roll. First, they know the power of mystery. Leithauser’s voice is so buried it’s hard to decipher what he’s singing, and the words that are audible — ”Old friend, we both know I could take you out” — only make you want to listen again to figure out what he’s bemoaning. The Walkmen also recognize the glory of finding beauty in ugliness. Chaos washes over them, energizes them, and, in the end, leaves them walking taller than before.