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A Musical Stroll With The Walkmen

May 21 2009, Published 6:12 a.m. ET

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There’s a reason The Walkmen have been a college-radio staple for almost a decade. The band, which formed in 2000, has an atmospheric sound—and singer Hamilton Leithauser’s Van Morrison-esque vocals—to set them apart from the airwaves’ influx of indie rock.

The group still has a dedicated following of current and former college rockers. Their Wednesday night show at the El Rey in Los Angeles was proof. (I think the only place you’ll ever see as many plaid, button-up shirts is a lumberjack convention.) There’s something inherently nostalgic, but never outright retro, about their dedication to using vintage instruments like upright piano. And Leithauser, who sulks on stage, hands in pockets, has an unfussy presence that’s much more Lou Reed than Brandon Flowers. There were murmurs of recognition every time the group launched into another song, and when they played their driving, best-loved single, “The Rat,” they consumed the audience and the venue in an ocean of sound.

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Berkeley band The Morning Benders opened for the band. The quartet’s debut album was justifiably deemed the best indie/alternative album of 2008 by iTunes. While their brand of jangle-y indie pop has drawn comparisons to The Beatles, live, they’re more frenetic and raw than the Fab Four. Mop-topped lead singer Chris Chu is all angular gestures and the band’s rhythm section knows how to make a song travel and build.

The Walkmen took the stage around 10:00 and played for more than an hour. Their new album, You & Me, has a slightly countrified feel, and a brass section even joined them on stage for a few songs. Maybe the new direction is a byproduct of moving their Marcata Studios out of the city and into upstate New York, but whatever the reason, it’s a welcome new tinge on The Walkmen’s timeless brand of rock-and-roll.

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