In 1974, while John Lennon was separated from Yoko Ono, he and eccentric troubadour Harry Nilsson went on an epic bender that resulted in the snottily titled Pussy Cats, a ragged exploration of pop psychodrama and vintage rock that was as "punk" as anything Patti Smith and Television were about to come up with. The record was a critical and commercial stiff, in large part because of the shocking deterioration of Nilsson's formerly smooth voice, but Pussy Cats has become a cult favorite, and is rightly considered the key to understanding Nilsson's and Lennon's evolving aesthetics.
In 2005, while The Walkmen were winding down recording on their tricky, not entirely successful album A Hundred Miles Off, the band blew off steam by recording a track-for-track "cover" of Pussy Cats. It's a weird idea on its face, since Pussy Cats itself consists largely of covers, like Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross" and Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." And sure enough, The Walkmen don't vary the arrangements much. "Many Rivers To Cross" features the same ragged shouting, and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" the same shuffling rhythm and robotic chanting.
The Walkmen are equally reverent to the trio of Nilsson originals that formed the heart of the original Pussy Cats: the wrenching piano ballad "Don't Forget Me," the sinewy pop rant "All My Life," and the campy cabaret lament "Old Forgotten Soldier." But bandleader Hamilton Leithauser drops his Nilsson vocal impersonation a little and lets some of his own scraggly voice bull through, reestablishing the songs' barely jokey angst. Still, this weird experiment—like the hit-and-miss A Hundred Miles Off—is no patch on the ragged-but-right Pussy Cats, which was a breathtaking document of two drinking buddies scrambling out on an impossibly high limb. It just isn't as impressive when someone ventures into badlands that have already been mapped.