The Walkmen are fearless. Ten years after appearing on the indie stage with an almost reluctant prettiness, they've come to celebrate the inherent romanticism in their spacious, warmly direct sound. But even by the unabashedly lovesick standards of You and Me and Lisbon, Heaven is something of a shock. The odd pacing in the first half renders it a marginal step down -- opener "We Can't Be Beat" is like walking in on the middle of a long conversation, and things meander a bit until the gorgeous "Line by Line" gets us on the road -- but it mostly finds the band homing in on the hook-filled, comfortable sound of anthemic pop with a liberating absence of embarrassment. It's simultaneously the ballsiest and most accessible music they've recorded.
In defiantly unironic odes to familial love and bliss ("I sing myself sick about you," Hamilton Leithauser insists hoarsely to his daughter on "Song for Leigh"), Heaven revels instead of soaring, suggestive of Van Morrison circa Tupelo Honey and even a bit of Springsteen as much as the band's earliest work deliberately echoed Television. It's injust that this gifted and imaginative rock band is still opening for younger, lesser talents like the Black Keys and Florence & the Machine, but they seem far from troubled; this is the sound of triumphant contentment.
Willis Earl Beal
A staunchly analog Chicago eccentric with an aspiration to rawest Dylan and Waits, Willis Earl Beal can't be called a true original, but does stick out as atypical in the era of Soundcloud hype and laptop-noodling. He comes ready-made with contradiction -- the outsider artist who publishes his phone number so he can sing to strangers -- and his uncompromising anti-folk seems almost deliberately shrill and unpleasant at times. Beyond the sometimes labored "authenticity" of so many lo-fi singer-songwriters, this debut album can be truly harrowing and difficult.
But it's also oddly charming, thanks to the frayed and ragged beauty in Beal's expressive voice, which at times far outpaces his songwriting and gently dramatizes his troubled but triumphant emotional roller-coasters. The stunning rock and blues singing conjures up distant memories of Blind Willie Johnson (on "Take Me Away") and Screamin' Jay Hawkins ("Angel Chorus") -- and when the time calls for it, he can pull out silky smooth Neil Young - Arthur Lee balladeering for "Monotony." That hint of extreme versatility suggests Beal is only getting started, and that he won't have time to take those phone calls for much longer.