The Walkmen

A Hundred Miles Off

(Record Collection; 2006)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

At some point your drunk friend becomes a nuisance. The antics and stumbles lose their endearing novelty and devolve into repetitive motions that are surprising for how much they don’t amuse anymore, for how much they even begin to grate on you. You begin, even, to wonder why you found all the tomfoolery amusing in the first place. Oh yeah: you were drunk, too. Now you’re sober.

I’m not saying for 100% sure that Hamilton Leithauser is a raging drunk. But even with its denigrating connotations, that personal experience is the first analogue I could summon to correspond to the aural experience of A Hundred Miles Off. In a flash of disappointing and sudden awareness, I realized that I no longer listen to The Walkmen. That I didn’t particularly want to listen to this album again in order to review it. That in retrospect, I don’t even particularly love the standard-bearers of their sophomore album, Bows and Arrows, “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages.” That I actually had to go back into my computer’s archives to remember the title of their sophomore album in order to write that last sentence.

Around a band’s third or fourth album the word “legacy” forms out of the mist of previously beheld potential. The mist dissipates and the concrete forms of that band’s efforts remain. The mist is intoxicating upon first encounter, for sure, but the subsequent moves are either 1) don’t release a follow-up and be remembered as a one-off, if at all, or 2) release a couple more albums at the risk of congealing an idea of legacy in your listeners’ minds. What sucks, bad, is to take the risky second option and fail to realize a worthwhile legacy after rolling up your sleeves. Don’t put a period at the end of the sentence just yet, but The Walkmen’s relevance right about now (and retrospectively) is about as foggy at the compositions from their catalogue - settling on and evaporating almost immediately from the windshield through which we view our musical landscape.

Five years from now I will leaf through my CD collection because I’ll be a broke never-went-to-law school post-grad in need of CD-sale cash, and will find this and the Walkmen’s other CDs, covered in five years’ worth of dust. And I’ll be mildly aggravated when the clerk shrugs and offers me a buck, max, for each, because the punk doesn’t know who they are, asking me subsequently, however, if I’ve heard the latest great band from New York that he’s found out about. And alone, or on the CMG board, should it still exist, I will chuckle at the bitch that is irony.

Desolate, perhaps. And trust me, for both my sake and The Walkmen’s, I hope the scenario never materializes. But unless The Walkmen put some substance into their immaterial songs, the fates would seem to agree on at least one party’s destiny. A Hundred Miles Off is, in this sense, nearly a textbook example of how musical complexity is, in some basic sense, important to make a band worth revisiting. Chiming guitars? Great. Vocal caterwauls? Intense. Swooning, boozy atmosphere? Swell. A Hundred Miles Off takes its compelling elements and then hashes them into an insubstantial, bleed-prone bender that takes advantage of none of them. Or perhaps we’ve just heard them too many times for the elements to register yet again.

“Louisiana” is, then, a perfectly appropriate opener for this reviewer. It recapitulates everything the Walkmen have done before, unexpectedly showing how haze can be pinned on a template: the chiming, atmospheric guitars, Leithauser’s now-cliché wails, and a single compelling, twice-repeated horn-led passage. Take any Walkmen song and see if it doesn’t work the same structure to a “T”: chiming guitars, atmospheric wash, and a compelling moment or couple moments against which to contrast the wash. The number of notes per song is what you’d expect from these guys, by now, and that’s not a good thing, ‘cuz the number is still low. Drumming exits and enters along the lines of Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, and occasionally attains the complexity of that in Bows and Arrows.

But at no point does the band exceed its modest achievements, which were striking, in the first place, less for their technical prowess than for the urgency of execution. The drunken urgency here, however, is not only tempered, but becomes static. The two-chord/note alternations (another woeful Walkmen staple at this point) of “Good for You’s Good for Me” could fit in here or on their previous two albums, and would sound as non-descript, viz. the Walkmen themselves, on either. The chord progressions of “Emma, Get Me a Lemon” are so expected as to encourage a bad pun or two. “Tenley Town” is “The Rat’s” retarded older brother with a punk beat that sounds comically out-of-place.

Which is not to say the Walkmen can’t hit on a good song or two (concentrated almost exclusively in the album’s middle third). “All Hands and the Cook” thankfully develops its initial predictable atmospheric grappling into a decent melody, which Leithauser seems to be positively avoiding for the song’s first minute or so. “Lost in Boston,” one of the album’s few highlights, is great pretty much just because of its verse drum pattern, though song’s real stroke of genius in it is a bass hook that makes it better than almost everything else the boys have ever done. It’s like, “whoa, I forgot they had a bassist.” Woe, oh woe, that The Walkmen seem completely unable to think up the kinds of variations in instrumental focus and internal pacing (and singing, even!) that drive “Lost in Boston” for their other songs. In fact, all that’s left is a lot of woe. Leithauser is woeful about various things, drinks coffee or just plain drinks, and makes his usual “I was that bad last night?” pleas and confessions. And like that friend that you got hammered with twice but never again, his vocal antics, stories, and inability to really hit notes – they get old.

Which is kinda what that album title acknowledges. Maybe one shouldn’t fixate on the “off” part of it, but part of this band’s appeal lay in their singularity as the ragged shadow against the lights of a preened New York backdrop. They were a hundred miles off, but their musical displacement was liberating. This album suggests, unfortunately, that their removal from The Scene was something of an into-the-fire thing; they may not be limited by the hipsterism of New York, but they’re no less self-limiting in style and ambition. So, ultimately, being a hundred miles off is in this case a matter of being stranded. These guys, so refreshing for being so singular, have stayed so narrowly within that singularity that they grow stale. Perhaps the problem may be more simply that they are too young to suddenly sound this old.