The Walkmen, A Hundred Miles Off, 2006

I was a Cure fan for years in the late 80s and early 90s. By the time Wild Mood Swings came out in 1995 all I wanted was for the Cure to strip back to a three piece and go back to being a post-punk outfit in the manner of their early recordings. They didn’t of course – they continued to get more bloated and ridiculous. The Walkmen on the other hand, instead of continuing in the direction of the brilliant Bows + Arrows have done exactly that – changed their sound back to something more immediate and direct, faster and punky. Not that they were heading in any sell out direction but I admire how they almost deliberately seem to have undermined their capacity for a growing fan base by taking a few steps backward instead of forward.

The resulting album is different, not as majestic as that sophomore effort unfortunately. It’s not bad – it has its moments, and they weren’t about to lose me as a fan, but it is a pity they’ve lost that peculiar sound they owned – you know the one I’m talking about – the lo-fi submerged dreamy piano songs. A Hundred Miles Off is at least a few miles off from where it seemed they were heading. Faster, punkier, spikier, even rawer. But firstly, it doesn’t quite have the dramatic cohesion—the albumness of Bows + Arrows, and secondly, if they decided to do away with atmosphere they forgot to replace it with great tunes. There’s a point around “Lost In Boston” where the songs and vocals seem to be straining way too hard and getting nowhere. Regardless, I still played this a lot in 2006, though it doesn’t get too much airtime nowadays. Okay, so let’s see what close listening reveals – spin that vinyl Bumstead…

Louisiana… opens on a lovely ringing guitar sound, a slow jaunty rhythm, and a great Leithauser vocal: “Louisiana / Come, go away with me / We’ll take the highway /
I’ll see you in between.” I like how the drummer seems to be playing his sticks against each other. This song contains the album title line: “There’s thunder and there’s lightening / A hundred miles off.” When the vocal builds up to the line “I’ve got my hands full” a brass section joins, some kind of mariachi effect. It’s a pretty cool opener, nice tune, soaring vocal part, noisy brass section sounding very exuberant. Seems to be a joyful song about spending summer in the southern state.

Danny’s At The Wedding… has one of what I call those ‘Interpol’ guitar lines—(a terrible reference, I’m sure it dates back at least two decades before Interpol were around) — a ringing note alternating between two parts, very atmospheric. That goes for half a minute before the drummer starts a shaky maracas/snare thing. Once again, ‘noisy’ seems to be the aesthetic here. Between the piercing electric guitars, the raw drums and cymbals, and Leithauser’s voice fighting to get through it all, it already starts to tire on the ears a little. It’s not difficult to catch specific words but it’s hard to listen and piece the whole thing together—a sort of story song about something that went wrong at a wedding? Not terribly tuneful. Bit puzzling.

Good For You’s Good For Me… I love this one, love the mix of faster drumming, chiming guitar atmospherics and Leithauser’s Dylanesque rant cast across the top of it all. “And the sun was shinin’ / Never so invitin’ / Yeah the sun was shinin’ out / Underneath the dogwood tree.” It’s a good tune, seems to be a song about hanging out in the city. Nearly every single song here is sung to a ‘you’ figure. The song doesn’t really change too much. Again, strong noise factor. But great descending vocal melody.

Emma, Get Me A Lemon… another goodie, with a fast clattering drumbeat, background subway guitar lines, but the vocal is the thing: “Emma get me a lemon / And if there are none / Get me a lime / And if we got none  / Go out and get some / I’m gonna wait here / By your french door.” This has an almost anthemic quality that reminds me of some kind of 80s band with its keyboard part in the back. The guitars all churn up into a chorus surge. The more I listen to the Walkmen, the more I hear that Interpol connection. The best thing about this song is that rattling rhythm, but it has a major change for the chorus in the middle. I get the feeling that this is a character song, like “Danny’s At The Wedding,” Leithauser seems to be playing the part of someone else: “And you ask me to come over / And it’s all coming together / There’s so many ways / We can take our time.”

All Hands And The Cook… very submerged bed of ringing guitars, with organ, very lo-fi, and a vocal yelled over it all, barely distinguishable words. “After all / You promised me / Broken nose / Twisted knee.” Another character sketch? Are these attempts at depicting the working man, who works out in the ‘yard’? The lyrics here are kind of obscure, just glimpses and hints, problematic relationships, but a bit too obscure. Leithauser’s vocal is almost starting to get annoying by this stage. Most songs here use this same sort of strained, half-yell, half-sung, despairing dog thing.

Lost In Boston… has a fairly immediately catchy riff, opening straight into the chorus. “Lost in Boston / Drinking rum and chocolate / A hundred thousand blinking lights / Are making me exhausted.” Man, listening to this noisiness is starting to make me feel exhausted. It’s great, but I can’t help thinking a little more variety of sound aesthetic would’ve gone a long way. It’s hip and all that, but too much dirge for too long is difficult to get into. There are no doors or tunnels through the middle of the song. It opens and closes with that ‘Lost in Boston’ melody, but the entire middle section is a dirgey, traumatic mess.

Don’t Get Me Down (Come On Over Here)… crikey, and then they up the ‘ringing guitar’ ante somewhat, this time at a higher pitch, just the same one or two notes stabbed, almost alarm-like. Eventually the drums and guitars all coalesce into something rhythmic, but I often get the impression these songs are only half-formed, like they jammed something quickly together in the studio, Leithauser added some vocals, they worked out a quick bridge and chorus riff (or not) and said, “yep, that’ll do, let’s keep it real man, let’s keep it just on the edge of improv.” I’d quote more lyrics, but they’re sort of so mixed up in the noise, they hardly seem to matter. “Don’t get me down,” he squawks like a chicken stuck up in its coop. It sure sounds ‘live’ though. I have mixed feelings about these songs. I love the noise, the immediateness of it all; I think what makes it hard is the repetition of song after song following the same kind of pattern.

Tenley-Town… much faster, and punkier. Yet another desperately squawked out vocal, virtually impossible to make out enough words to get a picture. I don’t know what “Tenley-Town” is, but it sounds very local. It’s like The Walkmen are still very much a local band who are playing down at the same bar for their mates. This is a fast thumpity dirge with blasted vocals, a real struggle between the band and singer. There’s parts where the drums change to some other rhythm which only adds to the frenetic insanity and caustic structure.

This Job Is Killing Me… yet again, noise is the key factor here. The drums sound totally live, hi-hat cymbal bashed, thumped bass drum, which dies out and and bleeds into another staccato electric guitar note. By this stage it just gets too much. Same noise, same struggling vocal.  Another Springsteenesque ‘working man’ song, this time about a bus driver: “Honey, this job is killing me.” And then the irony of the next line, “He lost his voice.”  It’s amazing Leithauser hasn’t lost his voice yet. Not much melody here, just a big noisy dirge of funked out rhythm, piano, the same old trappings, a dragnet of a song.

Brandy Alexander… and that’s precisely why so many people love this song. It sounds quite different to the previous five or six songs. Great tumbling rhythm, clearer vocal. “I tried to see it plain / There’s worse ways of getting here / You don’t hear me complainin’ / I’ll tell you of every dream / I’m holding for you and me.” Even with the lyrics available online, I can’t really fathom much from these songs. They don’t really captivate my interest because of the way he sings ’em. Nevertheless, this song is one of the best on the album. Here’s a Leithauser tic: “I tell you about a dream I had.” This is pretty close to the title of a song on Bows + Arrows. Here the line, or a variation of it, is used in three different songs.

Always After You is one of those long slow subway train songs, by which I mean, it sounds like Leithauser’s standing down some tunnel and the band are down there too, just round the corner, out of sight, and here comes the train rollicking through the tunnel. This speeds up, and it amalgamates everything I’ve said about all those earlier noisy songs into one bigger louder moshing thrashfest. It’s kinda cool though. “I was always after you until you started after me,” is the main chorus line, something you can actually sing along to. “On and on, I see someone that’s got it in for me.” I suppose I might seem one of those people right now. This song must be catharsis for Leithauser, but like being bashed over the head by several beer bottles after you’ve just chugged a sixpack, for the listener.

Another One Goes By… is another slower quite gorgeous number, written by a friend of the band called Quentin Stoltzfus. Has that woozy feel of some of the songs from Bows + Arrows. “And another one goes / And another one goes by.” There’s still all the noisiness, but there’s space in here too, and you can discern the parts, quite a beautiful guitar part in the break. Leithauser has never sounded like Dylan quite so much as he does on this album. For some reason, this song always carries itself like a final request at a wedding dance. Like most people have gone home already, but there’s a few drunk stragglers lurching around the dance floor, and the band are enjoying themselves.

Hm. This wasn’t much of a review. It’s hard to find the think-space within these songs to dissect anything intelligible in real-time writing. Can’t catch lyrics easily, most everything is pushed up to ten on the meter and all thrown together in hodge-podge fashion. Perhaps if they’d spaced tracks like “Another One Goes By,” “Louisiana” and “Brandy Alexander” more evenly throughout the album it would’ve provided that much needed breather between the numerous thrash-dirges. Claustrophobic is a word that comes to mind. This is the first album where the lyrics no longer seemed personal to the singer either, and he was forced into squawking just to be heard. Often you can discern the stitches between song parts which suggests the songs haven’t been fully realized. I don’t doubt for a second that all of this is exactly what the band intended of course, and for that reason, I’m still giving it the thumbs up. There’s something pretty cool about making an album like this just when your fanbase and hype-machine are all holding their breath for your big meaningful art statement. Instead, take a look at the sleeve – front and back – it sums up the contents perfectly. Well done on that front. A Hundred Miles Off was only the first of two Walkmen albums in 2006, the other, Pussycats, a cover of a 1974 Nilsson album, was released a few months later.

About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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