A Hundred Miles Off
he Rat” was the worst thing to ever happen to The Walkmen. It brought the iPod-lazy—singles, MP3s, mix and matchers—to their shows and records. The comp-kids with their stacks of one-song worthy CDs—oh yeah, I like this one, this is the one I was talking about, I recognize this, it’s on my Now 26. Sure, it led to larger exposure and certainly improved record sales (and an OC appearance to boot), but at a cost that seemed to detract from how valuable The Walkmen really were for geezers like myself in an increasingly fickle music world.
Ultimately, the obvious happened; a slew of nouveau admirers began to grumble on blogs and chat-rooms alike, deriding the album for its lack of successors. They bought Bows and Arrows; they played track two. For late winter and into the spring of 2004, The Walkmen were that most denigrated of descriptors, topical, titular vermin.
What these new fans were missing was that, first and foremost, The Walkmen were always a band dedicated to the creeping nuances, the heavings, and the gaping holes of noise and atemporal bliss that make an album more than a bundle of songs. Their debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, housed no blistering lead single. It was a long swallow of sea-salt, a drowning in incandescent hollow form. Tracks bled into each other like blotter-paper shapes, circling around the group’s trademarked water-drenched pianos and well-muscled but still ambient guitar lines. At times, you had a hard time keeping up with them, so snail-paced were their alterations, but at the end of the journey, you had a sense of excess growth. In short, The Walkmen were a band for those of us who still cherish the full-length.
Glory be to us then for A Hundred Miles Off. It’s the band’s throatiest, most pressing and urgent release to date. There’s no “The Rat”; just a “Louisiana” and maybe a “Danny’s At the Wedding” (in an alternate universe, it would surely be the thin-gutted stomp of “Tenseytown”). But, Christ if the band hasn’t found a way to sustain themselves for forty-two minutes without the lapses in demand that had sometimes set them back on both Everyone and even Bows and Arrows. Or more properly, they miss every proper step and every beat in a sturm of noise and space, never looking back to see what they just stepped on or failed to remember. The churn of mess has rarely sounded so scientific.
“Louisiana” is sure to be the album’s entry point, and thankfully it serves as its opener. Starting with a Basement Tapes guitar lead and knock-toe drum stick roll, Hamilton Leithauser’s drawl is a mask again, a post-millenial Dylan straining at the wrong moments and clearing it all up in the aftermath. As the song branches into stream, the band sounds out a Southwestern motif against a din of shrouded reverb and Tijuana brass. Where they’ve always made great grace out of static and din, here they allow the horns full clarity for a moment, and it serves as a notice of just how much they’ve progressed—never really forward, but sideways and maybe with a dizzying spin just to cloud their heads. I mean, fucking horns with a post-millenial New York ‘art-rock’ act? Bring on the clarinet, Ferry.
From there, “Danny’s At the Wedding” is the sort of raucously bleary guitar gust the band perfected on the first half of Bows and Arrows, while “Good for You’s Good for Me” scrapes the rust and grit from their ambience just a pinch, as its punchy bass-line pairs with a blurred rhythm guitar that make noise as if stuck in the bottom of a bottle. “Emma, Get Me a Lemon” adds tribalistic drums to the mix—one of the record’s most welcome advances along with an increased move away from their drunken piano-shanties on Everyone. . . toward virile guitarscapes—as Leithauser howls full-throat about scratching rats and his preferences in citrus fruits.
In fact, it’s hard not to slip into a track-by-track evaluation of A Hundred Miles Off. The sequencing keeps it aglide without ever getting jammed in a single gear, forcing the swerving clack of “All Hands and the Cook” to bump heads with the glorious guitar-go-round of “Lost in Boston,” the alarum-sound of “Don’t Get Me Down (Come On Over Here)” to grind out the pig’s slather of “Tenleytown.” “Brandy Alexander” candle-lights its lover’s accusation with more of their tribalistic jangle and Matt Barrick’s haphazard cymbal-taps; “Always After You (‘Til You Started After Me)” starts a frenzy of hide-and-seek, as we’re all set loose to prowl for the angriest, crudest heartbreaker we can find.
Noise, particulate and small, combed through Leithauser’s demented slur and the band’s long-neglected mastery of smothered dichotomies. Much of this was a staple of The Walkmen, but with A Hundred Miles Off, they pull of a Toulouse-Lautrecian thumbing of the edges of their sound, a bewildered realism via discordant, inhumanly fleshy melody. In a world as colored by lightning grays and dulled pinks as The Walkmen’s, maybe perfect mud is the stuff of legend.