Sometimes things just have a way of working themselves out. Take the Walkmen, for example. The five of them — all best buds from the same prestigious D.C.-area private school — head on up to New York City and start a couple rock bands: the infamous Jonathan Fire*Eater and the anonymous Recoys. Both of them break up for unrelated but familiar reasons — Jonathan Fire*Eater’s major-label contract and the Recoys’ lack thereof — and the old crew decides to pick up the pieces and form a five-piece in a self-built studio in Harlem before anyone starts talking day job. In no time, everybody’s buzzing about the cute eight-year-olds smoking cigarettes on the new group’s debut album and Saturn picks up the single “We’ve Been Had” for a snappy television commercial.
Four years later, the Walkmen remain in relatively good standing, having weathered a modest media blitz to enjoy a more than modest career trumpeting the Velvet Underground’s white hot gospel. Unfortunately, that good standing is almost entirely due to the fatal superiority of one little song — “The Rat” from 2004’s Bows + Arrows. Nothing before nor since — certainly not the songs on this album — has equaled its manic, righteous energy.
Of course, no band deserves the cruel fate of having the remainder of its career stacked up against five measly minutes of sublimity. Whatever the temptations, A Hundred Miles Off shouldn’t be read as a response to that fleeting brilliance; its twelve tracks have neither the weight nor the reticence of a band wrestling with its identity. The Walkmen just couldn’t be bothered. Take the opener, “Louisiana.” The track’s breezy, Cajun charm isn’t the sound of ironic insensitivity (it was written pre-Katrina); it’s the sound of a group of musicians content to be “drinking [their] coffee under a canopy,” and nothing more.
Predictably, the record returns to the Walkmen’s more familiar lo-fi crunch, but the good times remain, if just as memories. There are the drunken weddings (“Danny’s at the Wedding”), the failed relationships (“Always After You (‘Til You Started After Me)”), and the road trips gone wrong (the excellent “Lost in Boston”). But somehow vocalist Hamilton Leithauser and his cronies always manage to crack a weary smile. And under it all is Paul Maroon’s guitar. On “Don’t Get Me Down (Come on Over Here)” and the galloping punk of “Tenley Town,” his six-string is a bitter cacophony, ringing sharp eighth notes under an ocean of reverb.
By last call, though, I’m left wanting more. A Hundred Miles Off needs a single or a hook to balance its trebly extremes, and Leithauser’s good-ol’-boy tenor has lost some of its edge, tripping too easily into the whiny nether regions. The members of the Walkmen are endearing in that prep school-kid-gone-wrong kinda way — you can’t tell if they’re brooding over the next rhymed couplet or neck tie. But on their third effort, all that clean-cut swagger has worn a little ragged.
Prefix interview: The Walkmen [New record, new label. Same old really tall frontman.] by Dominic Umile