The original “Pussy Cats” grew from the savage debauchery that was John Lennon’s “lost weekend” of 1974. He and singer-songwriter and fellow madman Harry Nilsson tore apart the city of Los Angeles, drinking, getting kicked out of clubs, ruining who knows how many young lives and participating in other untold hedonisms that are only evidenced by the mania of their musical collaboration. The Lennon-produced Nilsson album “Pussy Cats” echoes the image of two such figures imposing themselves on a city. Incomprehensible, charismatic and powerful — a careful listener can feel the self-destruction as Nilsson’s voice gradually breaks apart due to a ruptured vocal chord.
For whatever reason, New York indie rock outfit The Walkmen got it into their heads that they should try to re-create “Pussy Cats.” The Walkmen’s distorted, aggressive and moody tone has earned them popular and critical success since the completion of their New York space, Marcata Studios, in 1999, and their formal establishment in 2000. “Pussy Cats” is the final project to come out of Marcata Studios before its closure and was recorded concurrently with their previous record, “A Hundred Miles Off.” They seem to have decided to have a little fun in the final days of their studio and to do something unusual and inexplicable.
There’s something in the interplay of Hamilton Leithhauser’s throaty and ringing voice against The Walkmen’s aggressive, or playful, or mournful backup that evokes a volatile air. They don’t overtly sound like Nilsson’s “Pussy Cats,” but there is a similar vein in their music that The Walkmen are exploring. Working backwards, one can almost understand the decision to make this a commercial project, but it remains difficult to see how they got there in the first place.
Covering an entire album is a curious and ambitious undertaking. What’s more, covering an album so rooted in a particular time and place and so inescapably bizarre seems foolhardy and misguided. The Walkmen are clearly having fun with a tremendously interesting project and creating some successful moments while they do it, but they never quite get over the inherent impossibility of their project.
All of these songs are at once very similar to the originals, and yet somehow they are operating on a different plane. The Walkmen’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” originally by Jimmy Cliff, is arranged almost identically to Nilsson’s, but the performance is just a little messier, and the throaty vocals are more extreme and pronounced. The result is not a re-envisioning or a reproduction, but a representation of the original. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” this time a Dylan cover, is again grittier and less together than Nilsson’s, but in this they actually get closer to the volatility and devil-will-care rage that lives in Dylan’s scattershot manifesto.
Some of the slow and mournful songs on the album fit The Walkmen’s sound well, and these are some of the songs where they seem the most comfortable. On the haunting and defiant “Black Sails,” the instrumentation is cleanly recorded but arranged with the dissonance of a pirate wail. Leithauser’s vocals are bold and loud, but a low-fi recording makes every word sound coarser than the original, hitting the ear with just a little less tact and more aggression. Unfortunately, a lack of percussion of any kind of drive makes “Black Sails” boring, and in the end, bad. “Save The Last Dance” is a little more successful. It’s a sweet and impassioned waltz, but the grating nature of The Walkmen’s recording underlies a sense of desperation, adding an interesting level to the piece. This is not to say that these ideas aren’t present in Nilsson’s version, but The Walkmen try to explain them further.
While The Walkmen seem more at home on these despondent tracks, the soul of this album lies in fun. In an interview with Pitchfork, bassist Walter Martin said of the album: “There was no real plan. It just sounded like a fun idea.” The Walkmen were first and foremost playing with an album they love. For example, “All My Life” explodes a carnivalesque ode to debauchery into a spectacular production, forcing the incomprehensible crazed tone in this tune to the foreground. “Loop de Loop,” a live track, captures the heart of this album perfectly. Nillson’s version features a child’s voice, but The Walkmen replace the child with an audience, and it sounds like a hell of a party. Out of the dancing bass, playful guitar and hard drums explodes Leithauser’s raspy shout, commanding before him a crowd of hipsters singing a children’s song.
The decision to release a song-by-song cover of Nilsson’s album remains confusing and unwarranted, but The Walkmen don’t seem to care. They can never quite recapture the original “Pussy Cats” or can make anything entirely new with this album, but what they can do is have fun. They have their own perspective on these songs, which is hit or miss, but they’ve decided to let their fans sit in on them screwing around. “Pussy Cats” is less of an album and more of a project, the last one at The Walkmen’s New York Marcata studio, and an unusual and noteworthy exploration.