The Walkmen walk a tightrope many of their contemporaries won't step near. The quintet has found a way to craft arty and clever highbrow songs that sound as gritty as the streets of their New York City home. Their music meanders in a refreshingly scattered landscape populated by odd arrangements, single parts for entire songs, soft crescendos and hazy lo-fi recording techniques.

Fellow New Yorkers the Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all have staked a claim in the current NYC rock renaissance, but the Walkmen embody something more unique and unencumbered by affectation. They stridently avoid theatrics and retro posturing, focusing on their hybrid of lounge lothario and garage-psych drone. "The most important thing for us is to make records that don't sound gimmicky," says bassist Peter Bauer.

The Walkmen came about in 2000 after the demise of two NYC bands already run through the corporate-rock wringer: former Dreamworks darlings Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys. The hybrid quintet featuring Fire*Eater drummer Matt Barrick, guitarist Paul Maroon and organist Walter Martin with ex-Recoys vocalist Hamilton Leithauser and bassist Bauer recorded its debut album sporadically in the band's own Harlem studio.

Anyone who has watched at least a few hours of television in the past year has probably heard the Walkmen without even knowing it. "We've Been Had"--a charming, piano-based, Stones-esque tune from the band's Star Time International debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone--served as the chiming soundtrack to a ubiquitous Saturn car commercial.

Despite the band's recent success as jinglemen, its blurry snapshot sound on the debut album shows its organic approach to its craft. "We'd basically write a new song and record it the next night," Bauer explains. The band approached its new album entirely differently, by writing new songs and working them out live during the past year of consistent touring.

The Walkmen's second album, tentatively titled Bows and Arrows, will be released by Record Collection/Warner Bros. in January 2004. Bauer says fans can expect a more live sounding record, but one that retains the Walkmen's unique charm. Will its audience like the change in direction? "Whatever," Bauer jokes with characteristic nonchalance. "I think when we fail, we fail in a fun and interesting way."

The Walkmen play with Kaito & the Silents on Saturday, Sept. 20, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 9 pm. $8. 21+