Delayed Plays: Walkman by Bad Bad Hats

Often, prior to pressing play on a new or new-to-me release, I’ll listen to a longtime favorite or two. Although it may seem unfair, it helps to determine whether the album in question holds its own. On Tuesday morning, for instance, I enjoyed one of the greatest compilations of all time, the Jam’s Snap!, and then clicked play on an album I initially previewed last Friday after one of its tracks popped up my “New Music Mix” in Apple Music—Walkman by Bad Bad Hats. And that night, while making dinner with my wife, we listened to part of the album again.

First things first: As I just gleaned from a quick Internet search, they began life as a duo when guitarists Kerry Alexander and Chris Hoge met while attending Macalester College in St. Paul; they formed a mutual admiration society on MySpace, where they both shared their music, and soon began gigging around the Twin Cities. Bassist Noah Boswell joined soon thereafter, though he’s since left the band for grad school; at that point, if I’m reading things right, Hoge swapped his guitar for bass. Connor Davison, meanwhile, maintains a propulsive rhythm on drums.

Second things second: As Alexander explains in this interview, they took their name from a character in the Madeline children’s book and TV series.

Finally, Walkman is their third album. They released their first single, “Super America,” in early 2013, followed it with an EP later that year, then an album in ‘15, another album in ’18, another EP in ‘19 and, now, here they are, a decade-deep into what amounts to a pretty cool career. They’ve earned plaudits from critics along the way and, apparently, won over a cadre of loyal fans.

Of the album in question: Walkman, which was released last fall, is poppy yet moody, retro yet futuristic, and more. It’s life set to song, essentially, with humor intertwined with—and often masking—the pathos that’s part and parcel of the human condition. The melodies are catchy as all get-out, while singer-guitarist Kerry Alexander’s vocals remind me of Liz Phair’s, light one moment and dark the next. On the one hand, it’s old-school rock and pop. On the other, it’s the future of rock and pop—revolutions always begin again, after all.

In the opening (title) track, which would make a great opener on a mixtape or mixCD, Alexander muses about a relationship (“You know I want to know you inside-out/I think you think of me, but I got doubts/You’re the only sound I can’t tune out/So I give in, and we dance this dance again”). “Detroit Basketball” finds her on the flip side of said relationship, with black humor creeping into the mix: “He says he doesn’t love me, that’s his final decision/Guess I’ll move out and start feeding the pigeons.” (The backing vocals that come in near the end, by the way, remind me of the Romantics.) “Always on Time” revisits the doubts of “Walkman” (“What do you see when you’re lookin’ at me?/Am I a leaf on a tree or a song on repeat?”), while “Gloria Love” sets a desire to be someone else to a bouncy tune. 

Don’t assume, however, that all the songs are about her or her life. In a 13th Floor MusicTalk interview, she explained, “I’m always just thinking, like, cinematically. I like the way music and visuals go together and the way, you know, songs can kind of like give context to a scene in your life and how special that connection is. So that’s what I’m always thinking about, just walking with your headphones, like in the rain kind of thing.” 

That said, the song “Priority”—which was recorded live in the studio—was inspired by an event in her teenage life: the untimely death of her father. It’s a windswept song that contains echoes of Neil Young with Crazy Horse. It’s a phenomenal, heartfelt performance.

“Quarter Past,” meanwhile, reminds me of what Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) tells William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Almost Famous: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” The hard-rocking “Milky Way” echoes Liz Phair in a good way—as does the less-rocking “In Static” and “Awkward Phase.” All three would’ve sounded at home on Phair’s eponymous 2003 album (says I, at any rate). “Year of the Crab” ends the outing with a nod to the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” but changes the object of John Lennon’s affection into an actual three-dimensional person: “Wasting time, out of my mind/But you’re in love with me and I feel fine.”

With the exception of “Priority,” which clocks in at 5:23, the Walkman songs are taut and trim, running three minutes or less; I’ve had it on repeat for most of the week and have yet to tire of it, which says something. I’m now digging through their back catalog, where I discovered their song “Liz Phair.” How cool is that? I may be late to their party, but I’m not leaving soon. If you haven’t already, definitely give this one a go.

The track list:

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