I bet a lot of people are jealous of The Walkmen. They cracked some code a few years back and somehow can make the late 70’s sound like the early 60’s with a revisionist approach to recording, and any attempt to pigeonhole them with their better dressed New York contemporaries has proven fruitless. And on top of this they somehow have broken commercially. It’s not too often that a band can sit back and feel relatively little backlash while collecting checks from “The O.C.” If I were them, I wouldn’t want to move a muscle, lest I start losing this perfect balance of fame and musical integrity.
Of course, since I’m not them I’m going to criticize the fuck out of their new record.
When an applause of horns comes bursting in halfway through opener “Louisiana”, it seems like on “A Hundred Miles Off” these guys have finally put away their infamous cynicism and decided to showcase the joy they’ve only toyed with sarcastically. But by the second song, the dirge that crippled their last two albums is back in full force, trudging along with reluctant harmonies and brooding repetition. It’s not that there aren’t bright spots of hum-worthy choruses (Expect “Emma, Get Me A Lemon” to sell you your new RAZR phone), and some uncharacteristic angles (If you ever wondered how Bob Dylan doing a punk song would sound, “Tenley Town” lets you know that the answer is “Stupid”), but too often the record moves with the joy and pace of scrubbing an oil-soaked duck with your own toothbrush.
While I’m inclined to blame these problems on the suffocating, tinfoil production that is also responsible for making them standouts, it’s also that sometimes they seem like caricatures of themselves. While the guitars have never been given a starring role in the band, on this record it’s as if Paul Maroon refuses to take ahold of any melodies, instead choosing to become a swirling mess of layered noise. I don’t know the original intention for his constant dependence on this, but it probably wasn’t “Distracting bullshit”. This in turn puts the burden of the actual songs to be shouldered by the underused organ/piano, the under appreciated bass/drums, and the vocals, which are never under a damn thing.
While the bass and drums are the true gems on this record, as they’ve always been the catchiest and most exciting part of the band, Hamilton Leithauser’s atonal rants have taken complete center stage, crashing through the record and burying everything with one thousand lyrics. Of course, this is merely based on the opinion that not only does he sing too much, but also that his vocals tend to grate after a few songs. If they never bother you, you’ll have a much different opinion. Also, if they never bother you I’d like the address of the car alarm store you live in.
The Walkmen stumbled upon a sound that works for them, and three of the same kind of record isn’t exactly wandering into AC/DC territory, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that they’re not on their way. While I’d like to put a lot of faith that they’re going to wow everyone with a different direction next time, the slivers of new ideas on “A Hundred Miles Off” wind up sounding less foreplay and more blue balls.