Brought to You By the Letter W
With the Who, the Walkmen and Woven Hand

So I just got back from a quick trip to the comic book store. Since I order all my books from the fantastic Casablanca Comics in Windham, Maine, I don’t find myself in my local shop all that often, and I never buy anything, which annoys the proprietors no end. So my visits are usually quick, and fueled by curiosity more than anything else – “Wow, so that’s what that book I’ve already paid for looks like,” like that.

Today’s visit was shorter than usual, on account of the pontificating nerds at the counter. My little hobby suffers under the weight of so many stereotypes that it’s just crushing to run into those cliches in the flesh. After a quick round of name-dropping (“Hey, I know Jim Lee!” “Oh yeah? Well I met George Perez!”), they launched into their critique of modern comics. I swear to you, one of them actually said this:

“I like good stories, with good dialogue. That’s why I read New Avengers.”

Convincing people that there are well-crafted, literary comics that don’t include a single muscle-bound moron or overly well-endowed bimbo in tights is hard enough without people like this running around, seriously believing that New Avengers is the pinnacle of the medium. And when they got around to the topic of super-hero movies (“Elektra’s not bad at all!”), I had to bolt. I’m a snobby snob, I admit, but jeez…

Anyway. I have a rare day off today, so I’m taking advantage of it, in the hopes of snagging a free weekend. Reviews in a second, but first, one very important addition to last week’s column, specifically the list of new records I’m looking forward to. I completely forgot the November 20 release of Raising Your Voice… Trying to Stop an Echo, the new one from the amazing Hammock. Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson make some of the prettiest noise you’ll ever hear, and their second full-length is being released by Darla, the home of Cockteau Twin Robin Guthrie, so that’s all good. Sorry for forgetting, and thanks to Chris L’Etolie for reminding me.

Now, onward. This week’s column is brought to you by the letter W:

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So the biggest news of the week, music-wise, is undoubtedly the release of Endless Wire, the first new album by the Who since 1982’s It’s Hard. Cash-grab reunion tours are nothing new for the Who, but this is the first time in more than two decades that Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have made a whole album together under the band’s name, and even with the undercurrent of filthy lucre, I was still interested to see what they came up with.

Now, I’ve never been on the Townshend train as much as many of my fellow critics. I like the Who, but I’ve always found their work to be both simple and overblown, if that mixture makes any sense. Tommy and Quadrophenia are both massive conceptual pieces, true enough, but the songs that comprise them are little more than ditties most of the time, and the lyrics are almost amusingly blunt. In short, subtlety, thy name is not Townshend.

Still, I was fascinated to hear what a 21st Century Who might sound like. Dr. Tony Shore (him again!) got an early version, and warned me away from Endless Wire, telling me in no uncertain terms that it sucked out loud. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your Who collection will be complete without needing to buy this.” But did I listen? Of course not.

As much as it pains me to say so, Dr. Shore was right. Endless Wire is terrible.

I seriously believe that any positive review of this record is tempered by affection for Townshend and Daltrey. Half of the original band is now dead, and the two survivors are coasting on a tremendous amount of good will for this project, but honestly, by no objective standard is this a good album. It doesn’t deserve the four stars it’s getting in most major publications. It doesn’t even deserve two.

The first half of the album is simply embarrassing. It opens with “Fragments,” a half-assed “Baba O’Riley” that cops the oscillating synth sound, but none of the energy. The virulent anti-religion ode “A Man in a Purple Dress” is as subtle as getting a cathedral dropped on you, though obviously Townshend thinks he’s being profound. Nearly every song is based on acoustic guitars – only “It’s Not Enough” rocks with any authority, and even that stretches its simple riff to the breaking point.

When Daltrey sings, the material is at least passable, but when Townshend takes the mic, as on “In the Ether,” things turn unlistenable. He’s pretty much lost his tone, and on “Ether” he sounds like Tom Waits with a sinus infection. Townshend also sings perhaps the most sickeningly sweet thing here, “You Stand By Me,” which is obviously a letter to Daltrey – when Townshend was indicted on child porn charges a few years ago, Daltrey became his staunchest defender. But Townshend could have just sent this tune to him in a letter, instead of inflicting it on us.

The second half fares better, but only slightly. It’s taken up entirely by a 10-song “mini-opera” called “Wire and Glass,” and it could have been a bit more mini, to be honest. The opus seems to be about the transformational power of music, but its plot is so silly that I won’t even relate it here. “Trilby’s Piano” takes the award for least likely to inspire repeat listens, but it’s got a lot of fierce competition. The opera even reprises “Fragments,” and it’s just as bad a second time.

Really, this album is pretty awful. I said this when I trashed Weezer last year, but listen to this record, and imagine it’s the demo tape from a new band. Then answer honestly if you think Universal would let this in the door. This only happened because of the music industry’s affection for the Who, even though that band no longer exists. Endless Wire is pretty much awful all the way through, and at 19 songs (plus two bonus tracks), I have to say they got the first part of the title right, at least. Avoid at all costs.

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I cannot, under my own criteria, explain how much I enjoy the Walkmen.

They are a messy, unrestrained, often amelodic quintet fronted by a guy who can’t sing at all, and they make raucous noise full of energy but not much else. And yet, every time I put on a Walkmen album, I’m wrapped up in the spell they cast, the odd house-of-cards atmosphere that surrounds everything they do. Even Hamilton Leithauser, the aforementioned frontman, manages to win me over to his caterwauling each time, somehow.

Still, I thought A Hundred Miles Off, their third album from earlier this year, wasn’t much to sing about. It didn’t have quite the memorable songs ratio that their prior effort, Bows and Arrows, sported, and I never even got around to reviewing it, despite liking quite a bit of it. I was especially fond of the pulverizing “Tenleytown” and the near-awesome “Lost in Boston,” in retrospect, but I just never moved the album to the top of the pile.

So why am I writing about them now? Well, who could have known that their second album of 2006, a song-for-song cover of Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album from 1974, would be the best Walkmen record yet? I sure didn’t, and I only picked this up for the same reason I bought Endless Wire – I have all the others, and I may as well complete the collection.

But man, I’m glad I bought this one. Pussy Cats is a strange choice for an homage – it was recorded with John Lennon, during the latter’s famous “lost weekend” in ’74 (incidentally the year I was born), and as legend has it, Nilsson’s vocal cords ruptured before the sessions started, but he didn’t want to disappoint Lennon, so he pressed onward. The result is a ramshackle collection of covers and minor originals, and you can hear Nilsson’s voice get progressively worse as the album spins.

It turns out, though, that Pussy Cats is a perfect choice for the Walkmen, and not the least of the reasons why is that Leithauser’s voice already has the ragged quality of the original. Like their first three records, Pussy Cats Starring the Walkmen almost seems to fall apart while you’re listening to it, and the band has captured the spirit of the original record just by being themselves. That said, the variety of styles here sends the Walkmen to new places, and brings new colors to their palette.

The covers on Pussy Cats aren’t exactly an encyclopedia of brilliance. The record kicks off with Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” and also includes Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Doc Pomus’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and the children’s song “Loop de Loop.” But the Walkmen understand why these songs were chosen, and infuse them with just as much frivolous fun as Nilsson and Lennon did. Often, the new covers are note-for-note versions of the original covers, if that makes sense.

Nilsson’s original songs on Pussy Cats weren’t his best, but the Walkmen take on the piano ballad “Don’t Forget Me” like they wrote it, and do wonders with “Black Sails,” a foreboding song that barely seems to fit here. But then, that’s the charm of Pussy Cats – nothing about it seems to fit. It’s a bunch of odds and ends, recorded for the fun of it, and in this new version, the Walkmen haven’t so much constructed a shrine to the album as they have thrown their own Pussy Cats party.

I always thought it strange when bands would choose nearly-flawless classic albums to interpret in the studio. Why would anyone want someone else’s version of The Dark Side of the Moon, for example, when Pink Floyd’s is readily available, if not overexposed? I’ve often wondered why bands don’t take on lesser records, ones that for whatever reason didn’t quite work out the first time, or never got the respect they deserved. With Pussy Cats, the Walkmen haven’t quite done that – the experience of their version and Nilsson’s isn’t that far apart – but they have shone an interesting spotlight on a near-forgotten record, and shown why they love it. Pussy Cats Starring the Walkmen is a surprise, and a delight from start to finish.

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Seeing Woven Hand was one of the most intense live music experiences of my life.

The band is essentially David Eugene Edwards, formerly of 16 Horsepower, and his small armada of stringed instruments, from guitars to dobros to mandolins. Ordy Garrison joins in on drums on some of the more powerful pieces, but trust me that your eyes and ears will be locked on Edwards. He strums and shouts and spits, and all of a sudden, you’re in the deep south in the early days of America, and you’re listening to ballads about hellfire and God’s judgment, and you can feel the flames licking cold stone and the earth beneath your feet as you wrap your flimsy blanket about you and try not to think about where your soul is headed.

Woven Hand makes spooky, spooky music, and their fourth album, Mosaic, is perhaps their most claustrophobic and chilling yet. Edwards is no less intense on record, and the layering of sound a studio allows him only makes his work more spine-tingling. But let’s be clear – this is not Halloween-style silly-scary son-of-Satan stuff here, this is the real thing, fire and brimstone from an evangelical Christian wrapped up in seriously frightening soundscapes.

It’s also amazing, and unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. In the past, Edwards has stuck close to Appalachian folk styles, twisted to his own ends, but here, he’s all over the place, using choirs of backing vocals and pianos to fill out the sound. “Whistling Girl” is one of his finest songs, and one of the few that allows some light to spill in. Elsewhere, though, Edwards constructs elaborate tunnels of sound (“Twig,” “Elktooth”) and preaches over them, his fiery voice cutting through everything.

The lyrics are, as usual, cryptic Old Testament sermons, full of references to thorny woods and thundering skies, signs of God’s wrath. It’s no coincidence that the sunniest thing here, “Bible and Bird,” is an instrumental, and it leads directly into “Dirty Blue,” one of the most explosive on the album: “You’re curled up warm in your own little corner of Sodom, did you agree to believe this fall has no bottom?” The album has an apocalyptic feel to it, and it leaves you drained, physically and spiritually. I’m often interested to get inside the heads of my favorite artists, but I’m a little frightened of what it must be like to be David Eugene Edwards.

Still, he makes captivating music, and Mosaic is his finest achievement yet, the most complete realization of his bone-chilling vision. Unlike most records that promise thrills and chills, Mosaic will scare the bejesus out of you, but it will also leave you in awe of Edwards’ talent and intensity. He’s following his own path through the darkened woods, and though you may not want to follow him where he’s going, you’ll want to hear the songs he sings along the way.

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Next week, new ones from Copeland and Nellie McKay, most likely.

See you in line Tuesday morning.