The Walkmen - A Hundred Miles Off

Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser must have been listening to a lot of Dylan before recording A Hundred Miles Off. Tweaking his vocals to an evocative nasal wail, he and his bandmates once again show that the Walkmen are veritable Houdinis of genre definition. The New York five-piece has made steady progress since its warmly received 2002 debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone. Drawing immediate comparisons to the gorgeous, occasionally heavy-handed guitar rock that characterized the early years of groups such as U2 and the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Walkmen have since been seeking out a way to hone their unique sound while still keeping audiences guessing about the direction that their music will take.

Despite their “indie rock” status and proclivity to experimentation, the group has already found some mainstream success by way of a bevy of television commercials as well as teeny-bopper fare such as “The O.C.” Formed by three former members of the much-hyped Jonathan Fire Eater (Paul Maroon on guitar and piano; Matt Barrick on drums; and Walter Martin on organ) and two members of The Recoys (Peter Bauer on bass and front-man Leithauser providing vocals and an additional guitar) the youthful appearance of the group belies each member’s lengthy touring and recording experience. The band has obviously worked hard to provide a worthy follow-up to 2004’s Bows and Arrows, which was touted by many a critic as one of the year’s best albums.

On this, their third full-length, The Walkmen once again showcase their penchant for shambling arrangements, impeccably-recorded vintage equipment, and non-standard percussion. Despite these consistent themes, A Hundred Miles Off is much more polished and upbeat than past works, due perhaps to the fact that the band has taken full creative control of their musical output. In addition to tailoring their studio, Marcata Recording in NYC, to their liking, the five band members are now owners and proprietors of the site. Whereas the last two Walkmen efforts were masterfully recorded but casually mixed, this time around, production techniques are clean, tracks are neatly interwoven, and Leithauser’s previously muffled vocals are clear as a bell. Even the percussive section is given a heightened edge, as Barrick’s traditionally loose stick-work come across as dignified and completely in control.

Overall a great record, the band’s choice of song ordering both baffles and surprises. The inexplicably-chosen album opener “Louisiana,” is a shaggy dog story that features a mariachi band, a marimba, and jazzy organ noodling. Who do these guys think they are, Calexico? Thankfully, the Walkmen leave their frantic attempt at genre-bending behind them as they attack “Danny’s at the Wedding,” a more classic Walkmen-style track, featuring chiming guitars lightly distorted over a snare-phobic drum track. The slowish strains of “Danny” prep the listener for the up-tempo, “Emma, Get me a Lemon,” which includes a neat organ lick that briefly overtakes the guitars within the chorus. It also features the album’s only lengthy guitar solo, which ends far too soon.

“All Hands and the Cook,” one of the most interesting tracks on the record, is a disconcerting rhythmic dirge that features a plaintive Leithauser desperately straining to hit the high notes. Somehow, it works. The song opens with a rumble of tinny guitar and synth that brings to mind the opening strains of a film noir from the late 60’s. “You were lost when I found you,” screeches Leithauser, who sounds as if he has just finished a carton of cigs and a gallon of whiskey. Just as you begin to wonder if his vocals are all squawk and no charm, the swelling organ sweeps in a melodic chorus where Leitheiser rasps in a sing-song, “Burn down the room when I’m sleep, break out the bottles when I go. I’ll dig a hole for all your friends.” It’s a love song for the people you love to hate.

“This Job is Killing Me”, another stand-out, is an up-tempo thrasher reminiscent of “The Rat” from Bows & Arrows. In this case, vocal clarity is overthrown by rippling power chords, frenetic drumming, and much screaming from Leithauser. It’s a welcome energy-filled punk departure from an album that inspires more head scratches and head nods than dance moves. The Dylan-inspired track “Another One Goes By” brings the rollar-coaster of up-tempos down-tempos and the occasional misplaced marimba to a comfortable close with a swingy melodic shuffle. Leitmeister’s fixation is extended gratuitously from his Dylanesque vocal stylings to his clever wordplay to the earthy, Band-ish roots rock accompanying his vocals. Again, somehow it works.

A Hundred Miles Off is a warm, diverse collection of beautiful rock songs that would simply disappear in the hands of a lesser band. It takes both chops and gravitas to pull off this kind of elegant minimalism, to show restraint at every turn, yet still suggest such Technicolor majesty. This is not a party record, though it may end up at a couple. This is a springtime album of driving-music: cruise-controlled highway driving with no traffic in sight. Guaranteed to entice newcomers as well as long-time fans.

Release Date: May 23, 2006

The Walkmen Website


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