Peter Matthew Bauer
Bottom of the Hill
San Francisco, Ca
When I heard the news, I was distraught, beyond solace. One of my favorite modern bands–a reliable rock and roll institution in an age of high turnover and quick burnouts–called it quits, leaving behind a body of work, both entirely satisfying and indicative of more, better things to come. What they’d accomplished was more than enough, more than almost any band could claim, yet it seemed a shame to walk away so soon, before they’d ripped through another masterpiece or two.
The Walkmen are dead–for now–and I’ve come to accept that, for two main reasons. The open-ended nature of the split, internally termed an “extreme hiatus,” leaves future opportunities for reunion shows and, possibly, a full-fledged return, although a complete creative reunion seems unlikely based on the members’ exit interviews. The other source of comfort comes from the solo output of the former band, a harvest of three separate releases within the first year of independence.
I’m not exactly in the target demographic for Walter Martin’s All Young Together. I’m sure it’s quality music for families, but I’m at the point where I’d rather hear a desperate howl then a duet about the zoo. When I get to domestication, or even fatherhood, I hope to circle back.
The next release came from lead singer Hamilton Leithauser. A collection of classic crooning, jazzy instrumentation, and lush orchestration, Black Hours plays like the most traditional pop elements of The Walkmen separated entirely from their bristly, post-punk foundation. Filled with Leithauser’s biting wit and some genuinely striking melodies, the album has its fair share of bright spots, but lacks the caustic energy that drove so many of his strongest songs.
Then, original bassist-turned-organist/rhythm guitarist, Peter Matthew Bauer, upended expectation and quietly came out with the strongest of the crop–at least to my ears. It has a lot to do with expectation, that I was hungry for more rock and roll in the vein of one of my favorite acts, and Bauer’s album, Liberation! skews more towards The Walkmen’s sound than the other entries.
That said, it is by no means a retread of his former work, rather a fusion of musical comfort zones with some wholly new influences. The album contains some new wave-styled synthesizers, polyrhythmic island drums, George Harrison-toned guitar lines, and spaced-out ambient passages, all bolstering the straight up rock and roll that became The Walkmen’s strong suit somewhere between Bows + Arrows and A Hundred Miles Off.
[Self-indulgent tangent: While poorly received at the time and mostly neglected by the fanbase and the band itself, A Hundred Miles Off contains some stellar songwriting, interesting production choices, and an overall diversity of styles that covers a far broader genre range than any other Walkmen release, perhaps, for the worse. I get why it’s not held in the same high ground as the other records, but it’s well worth a listen and features a few nuggets that I’d snipe out for an entirely hypothetical greatest hits record that I’ve been mentally compiling.]
Recorded entirely by Bauer–except for drums and backing female vocals–Liberation! stands as his first solo songwriting project and his first foray as a lead singer. After experimenting in bedroom studios and taking some lessons, Peter emerged with a unique voice that shifts between influences with ease, despite its askew tuning for standard pop music. You can’t help but hear Hamilton’s shadow throughout, the peculiar intonations and kicked back croons, along with a host of traditional rock touchstones. There’s a considerable amount of Deerhunter mixed in as well, with Bauer taking cues from Bradford Cox’s ghostly vocals and off-kilter belting and Lockett Pundt’s detached buzz, matched to soaring guitars.
While much of the record could be envisioned as some streamlined mash-up of The Walkmen and Deerhunter’s most melodic incarnations, one track in particular nails the intersection of the acts: “Philadelphia Raga.” It begins with interlocking acoustic guitar picking, reminiscent of The Walkmen’s “New Country,” a lazy unwinding that gradually builds to an assured strum. When the drums kick in and Bauer takes the microphone, it morphs into a spaced-out, driving ditty that could be easily mistaken for one of Pundt’s contributions to Halcyon Digest. Burning right beside the fevered strum, Bauer details various religious images and quasi-mystical episodes, lending casual weight to the summer breeze of a song.
Through most of the record, Peter remains fixated on religion, mysticism, and all of the fears, assumptions, and joys that ride shotgun to belief. In various interviews, he’s reflected that, as his first solo work, he felt indebted to start from the beginning and turn his early biography and concerns into an album. He was not born in an Ashram, as the first song suggests, but he was raised in one, and opened at an early age to various belief systems. With Buddhist parents, one of whom practices existential psychotherapy, Bauer was not raised to be a blind believer, but a dedicated seeker of transcendence and all of the answers beyond our mortal scope. He’s come out the other end, seeing the value and substance in meditation and other spiritual practices, yet knowing that most human worth comes from our experiences and relationships.
No song better encapsulates his thesis than the last track, “You Are the Chapel.” Over a piano line and stomping rhythm that could be copped from the E Street Band, the songwriter reaffirms individual meaning by repeating the title phrase and insisting, “You were always the reason, you were always the one.” Throwing in some humorous asides and reaching rock and roll preacher mode like a slurred and less nasally Craig Finn, he ends by asking, “What is the wonder of everything?,” answering himself a few lines later with, “You are the chapel and everything is wonder.” All of life–the world, the people, and every being–has wonder and meaning waiting to be discovered, waiting to be acted upon.
It’s easy to let that kind of material get out of hand and lean too close to the pulpit, but Bauer keeps a steady keel with plenty of absurd portraits and near incendiary asides. In person, his sincere affability and comfortability with his bandmates helps the case even more. When I saw him perform at The Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco last month, he introduced his band simply with, “These are my friends;” his between song banter bespoke a slightly nervous but deeply passionate musician, confident in some ideals, yet fully aware of the firm grip of chaos. You could tell by some rushed breathing and surprised gratitude that he hadn’t grown all the way into the role of lead singer, but he’s well on his way to becoming a force all his own.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s backed by a killer group of musicians, an assembly of friends from Philadelphia, musicians met on the road, and even his own wife taking her first bow as a backup vocalist. Onstage, the whole crew looks pleased as punch to be there and sharing each other’s presence, managing a collective front while retaining their individual characters. You have the fully rocking out rhythm guitarist; the cooly detached lead guitarist with a toothpick in his mouth; the aloofly bouncing bassist; a pair of sweet, swaying female vocalists; an endlessly pounding drummer; and Bauer at the front with the mic and an acoustic guitar, holding it all together.
I don’t know the exact circumstances of The Walkmen’s hiatus, but there’s a sense that the members had grown tired of each other, at least as a creative unit. With his new group, Peter Matthew Bauer is visibly enthused and inspired, even debuting a series of new tracks written about their collective adventures on the road. While it’s great to see an artist you appreciate in a happy, creative place, a part of me wishes his individual ventures weren’t quite as successful, almost to necessitate a Walkmen reunion. As it is, I could see this new outfit carving a nice little niche for themselves and steadily progressing as the frontman grows more confident in both his writing and performance. Sure, that’s mostly sweet, but there’s some bitter there, too.
Part his approachable nature and part record label mandate, Bauer introduced every song, the most memorable coming in his explanation of the fateful airplane ride that led to “Scientology Airplane Conversations.” Despite the low volume of people at the venue, the crowd remained engaged and supportive throughout, and Bauer kept repeating his gratitude for our attendance and response.
Towards the end of the set, the ladies left the stage and the men tore into a few straight up rockers. Bauer dropped the acoustic guitar and gripped the microphone, swaying and attacking almost like Leithauser, transforming into a far more forceful performer than you would have believed possible from the onetime bassist of The Walkmen. The ladies returned and the whole group played a few more, sending us out with another wave of enthusiastic melody.
On our way out of the venue, my photographer claimed that it was the best show that we’ve seen, as far as general vibe and audience engagement. I deferred to a few previous favorites, but he was adamant, and in reflection, it’s hard to dethrone Peter Matthew Bauer and his band of friends, for their seamless musicianship, genuine chemistry, and goodnatured charm. While I may prefer The National’s catalog or Titus Andronicus’s rage, Bauer may have left me more contented and comfortable with my place in the world.