When one considers the debut LP from Walrus, Family Hangover, the first stumbling block which comes up is where the music came from. As one listens, it quickly becomes easy to pick out little bits of ideas which were obviously originally the work of artists who initially inspired the band and, because those stylistic breadcrumbs are so easy to spot, one will quickly begin to wonder just how fresh and new what they’re hearing really is. Before we get ready to write Walrus off though, we need to consider what filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once said about originality: “Nothing is original. Steal from everywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams…. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. In any case, always remember was Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.’”
Now, on the surface, such an opinion does nothing to inspire hope for new music in general and even less in what Walrus are making specifically – but really considering what Jarmusch is implying makes some pretty exciting sense. In fewer words, post-modernism is less about process and more about results; if it’s appealing, that is the point – not the manner in which it came into being. That consideration becomes integral to the Family Hangover experience because if one attempts to break it down, listeners will find that the album is a glittering compendium of familiar, platinum-streaked sounds which wouldn’t be found together anywhere else – but that they do come together in the manner they do here is perfectly unique and absolutely brilliant.
The post-modern influence stacking which happens on Family Hangover begins as soon as “Later Days” opens the album with spidery guitars which sound exactly like those Peter Buck used to spin gold with for R.E.M. In the Eighties, but they’ve been augmented here as they’re combined with minor-key chord changes akin to those The Cure favored. On paper, this combination doesn’t sound like it should work – The Cure is too bombastic and R.E.M. Too homespun to coexist, right? – but it proves to work very well indeed here. There’s a sort of oddly perfect balance between the “obviously mainstream” portions of the song (the “great big” bass tone, the shifting, swirling internal song dynamics) and its “obviously underground” trappings (those guitars and Justin Murphy’s vocals – which come close to sounding like the distracted, poetic musings of Kim Gordon), and listeners will find the space they’re able to occupy between those poles perfectly engrossing.
That bait will entice listeners further and, after “Later Days” sets the precedent and gets the album rolling, the A-side of Family Hangover unloads a series of songs which add flesh to that form. “In Timely Fashion” immediately follows and keeps the basic skeleton of “Later Days” but includes some more danceable, Seventies-inspired guitars to the mix while the album’s title track gets a little more sweet and intimate with Murphy purring out an absolutely loverly melody and then “So Far Gone” cuts the mix down to just an acoustic guitar (which seems to have difficulty staying in tune) and Murphy’s voice before “Regular Face” bows the the Sloan-y east coast paradigm of worshipping at The Beatles’ pristine pop altar to close the side.
Such quick and easy summation of the sounds may seem off-putting to readers who have yet to experience the music in person, but that isn’t the intention here at all. Rather, the fact that it is so easy to succinctly qualify each song as it plays through is refreshing; on this side, listeners will recognize everything they’re hearing but won’t deny that they’ve never heard anything quite like it before, and that’s enough to send first-time listeners into fits of ecstasy.
After they’ve hurriedly flipped Family Hangover in hopes of retaining the magic expressed by the album’s A-side, listeners will realize that Walrus has a plan and it doesn’t include simply reprising the dynamics they already covered once. After lining up a short instrumental intro for the side, “Free Again” ambitiously begins spreading out a psychedelic build which doesn’t feel as though it intends to be ironic but is certainly vivid and weird. Right off, listeners won’t be able to miss the song’s drone-y tone and methodical rhythm of the song, but the strange implications of the track are really made plain when Justin Murphy starts sighing stock stoned lyrics like “This must be make believe, sunshine in my eyes/ There’s magic in the trees and love in the sky,” coupled with a slow-moving guitar figure which just drips of mind-expanding substances. It goes without saying that there is definitely an attention-grabbing quality about the song, but that it takes over five minutes to play through can also make it patience-testing. On the wrong day, listeners may find that the tempo of “Free Again” can be nearly intolerable.
While the B-side starts a bit slow, it doesn’t take long for the moving to pick up. “Tell Me” follows “Free Again” and takes a psychedelic sound right out of Sixties San Francisco out for a triumphant spin but, most importantly, Walrus has the wisdom to keep moving forward. On “Tell Me,” the band’s rhythm section really steps up its game and threatens to trample listeners if they don’t fall in step with the band, and the results are obnoxiously anthemic. On top of that awesome rhythm, Justin Murphy just rails out lines like “Baby, why am I feeling blue?/ I know it’s not because of you” while also commanding his muse to just “Tell me” a few inconvenient truths.
With that energy up, it’s easy to overlook the fairly forgettable drag which follows it (“Glam”) and fall in love with the closing artifact, “What Goes On.” There, Walrus knows it has walked walked the course it set but, with just a little more time to go, pushes out a solid outward trip which doesn’t feature any added aural fireworks, but still leaves on a strong note and solid ground which can get lots of listeners set up and ready for another trip through both sides of Family Hangover. That’s sort of a hook, in its own way – the way the B-side ends (with a cessation rather than an explosion) makes it easy to just continue from side to side in perpetuity.
After the third or fourth play through Family Hangover (because this writer did fall under that perpetual flip-and-continue phenomenon outlined immediately above), listeners may finally admit to themselves that Family Hangover is indeed habit-forming but, by then, they’ll also be indifferent to that fact because they’ll have completely fallen under the band’s spell and all they’ll want is more. They’ll want to hear more from this strange little band and want to know more about them because the path they’re cutting, while featuring familiar elements, is completely unlike any other listeners can recall. That’s a fantastic and exciting spell to cast; after they’ve heard it, those who come upon Family Hangover will be left hanging on desperately for more from Walrus because they’ll want desperately to find out what the band’s next experiment yields.
(Madic/Arts & Crafts/Universal Music)