“I think this is my mid-life crisis album,” explains Walter Martin (co-writer, multi-instrumentalist of the Walkmen). “These days my friends and I all seem to be thinking the same dark thoughts – ‘What the hell am I doing? What the hell's going on? I’m lost. I’m running out of time and I’m doing everything wrong. And I’m probably dying.’ This is definitely an insane period,” Martin continues, “but most of the time I kind of love it.”
Reminisce Bar & Grill is the fourth solo album Walter Martin has recorded since his band the Walkmen split in 2013, and it’s one that might throw fans of his two award winning kids’ records (2014’s We’re All Young Together and 2017’s My Kinda Music) for a loop. With frankness and poignancy, Martin, now a 43-year-old married man with two young children, squarely tackles the subject of adulthood – specifically, his own.
“I’m very proud of the kids’ records,” Martin explains, “but recently I’ve felt compelled to write more about real life and to write about things that aren’t quite so tidy.” Listeners will recognize the same affable narrator from Martin’s previous work – particularly his other non-kids’ album, 2016’s Arts & Leisure – but here the subject matter has shifted dramatically. As Martin explains, “I wanted this album to be an entertaining discussion of marriage, fatherhood, work, fear and weakness.” While Martin approaches these subject matters with candor and sincerity, he clearly also enjoys mining them for humor.
“I’m definitely influenced by Woody Allen movies,” Martin notes. “No matter how serious or romantic or dark his story may be, there’s always a strong undercurrent of comedy. I really relate to that kind of storytelling and I strive for a similar balance in my songs. To me it makes things feel human.”
On a number of tracks Martin walks the listener through terrain he knows well – the life of a working musician. On the gloriously ragged, Randy Newman-esque “I Went Alone On A Solo Australian Tour,” he engages in a rousing call-and-response conversation with a gang of friends (which includes one of his Walkmen cohorts, Hamilton Leithauser). In a hilarious spoken section, the friends casually discuss poorly attended solo concerts, money and mortality. But the gags slip away with the trenchant line, “Down here I don’t know no one/and no one knows me.” Later in the album, in the transfixing neon glow of “I Wanna Be A Country Singer,” Martin runs down a list of rejected trades with stinging barbs before finally landing on his fantasy career choice as a country singer, “driving my bus across this land, turning that wheel with my own hand, singing songs that the people understand.”
In the centerpiece song of the album, the sweeping rocker, “Ride Down The Avenue,” Martin finds himself “thinking through a hard year” while driving through the night with his sleeping wife and children. Scenes from his past come in and out of focus as Martin wrestles with the present – “I’m alone, I’m not alone. And I’m scared, but I’m not scared...and I know I’m old it’s true, but I know I’m young too, as I ride down the avenue.”
The spacious, echo-drenched sound of Reminisce Bar & Grill rolls over a listener like waves,
and Martin notes his inventive use of reverb as being a key part of the album’s sonic foundation. “It’s kind of magical and elusive, and it really adds to the nostalgic, romantic feel of these songs.”
The album was recorded over a two-and-a-half year period at various studios in Brooklyn and at Richard Swift’s National Freedom Studio in Cottage Grove Oregon. The songs were mixed by D. James Goodwin (Bob Weir, Craig Finn), Richard Swift (Shins, Foxygen) and Phil Ek (Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses). A nimble multi-instrumentalist, Martin handled guitar, piano, organ, bass and percussion duties, but he also relied on the services of a coterie of crafty players and singers: Brian Kantor (Fruit Bats) on drums, Josh Kaufman (Craig Finn, Josh Ritter) on guitar and Jamie Krents (French Kicks) on bass. The soaring harmony vocals woven throughout the album are delivered by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah singer, Alec Ounsworth.
Martin recently performed a couple of cuts from Reminisce Bar & Grill for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, and he’s currently plotting his live presentation for when he tours behind the album next year. “I’m very happy with how this record turned out and everything it says. Maybe in 10 years, when I’m in my mid-50s, I’ll look back on it and think, ‘Wow, that stuff sounds so naïve.’ All I know is that, at this moment, it feels like exactly what’s going on in my head.”