Word on the Beat


It's new feature time. We at the hill are getting musicians to talk about other musicians. Sounds fun, admit it. Today, Matt from the Fantods is going to review the new Walkmen album - A Hundred Miles Off. Hopefully, we will be getting more and more musicians to review their favorite albums, but today, Matt is talking about the new Walkmen because they are in town playing Saturday night with Mazarin.

The Walkmen’s sound is a rare and glorious beast: woozy vintage organs, fuzzy, reverb-heavy guitars, droning bass, and plonky, out of tune piano, form a creaking platform for Hamilton Leithauser’s raw, soaring vocals. It takes several listens to really get into their first two albums, “Everyone who Pretended to Like me is Gone” and “Bows + Arrows”, but the effort is well worth it, as both albums have serious staying power: even after several years of steady listening, new musical surprises continue to emerge from their sonic fog.

So when I heard that the Walkmen had left their Manhattan studio to record their new album “A Hundred Miles Off”, and, apparently in an attempt to stoke their creativity, were madly switching instruments and working on such nutso projects as a collaborative band novel and a song by song cover of Harry Nilsson’s shambolic “Pussycats” album, I was a little concerned. I hoped that the band’s music wouldn’t similarly undergo such radical change, or reflect their apparent difficulty in focusing.

The album opener, “Louisiana”, initially seemed to confirm my fears. The Walkmen have proven able to throw a Pedro Martinez quality changeup into their albums - the indie-rock rumba “We’ve Been Had” from “EWPTLIG”, and the drunken Irish waltz “So Long Siobhan” from “Bows + Arrows” - but here they toss a curveball right away. “Louisiana…” sings the Leithauser the Manhattanite, over a perky Calypso guitar figure and a beat of drumsticks whacking together. Then, as the song reaches its climax…Mariachi horns!? But dammit, as soon as you hear the horns, you not only feel compelled to bust into your best little Latino dance, you realize that they fit seamlessly into the song. Okay, score one for the Walkmen, but where the hell are we going here?

The next suite of songs plunges us back into the Walkmen’s familiar rock and roll haze. And within that haze lurk moments of real inspiration. My current favourite: a minute into the second track, “Danny’s at the Wedding”, after the band has already seamlessly shifted gears two or three times, Matt Barrick’s drums burst in and take over. Barrick is outstanding throughout, knowing just when to lay back, sitting on his sticks or casually poking at a floor tom, but seizing his moments with confidence and invention. Other highlights: the organ riff dissolving into shimmering guitar in “All Hands and the Cook”; the little outro in “Emma, Get Me a Lemon”; the way the bass stomps in halfway through “Lost in Boston”. Overall, the band is tighter and more innovative than ever.

Lyrically, the Walkmen don’t play the usual rock n roll game of “find a unique metaphor”; they essentially skip metaphors, and for that matter, adjectives, altogether. Instead, their lyrics simply and plainly recount everyday, almost mundane events. The music, and Leithauser’s remarkably expressive voice, add the colour. Leithauser wearily sings “Spent a week away, but we leave the coast tonight, the locals keep us up all day and night”, and you know exactly where he’s coming from—you immediately get that satisfying, dog tired, end of a drunken vacation feeling.

Gripes? A couple. One is that Leithauser, whose voice naturally seems to have character to burn, strangely apes Bob Dylan on a couple of tracks. This is particularly evident on the album’s weakest track, “What’s Good for You is Good for Me”. And overall, I’m not sure that the songwriting on this album is quite as strong as on their first two. Nothing quite matches the exhilaration of “The Rat”, the crumbling beauty of “So Long Siobahn”, or even the charming quirkiness of “Revenge Wears no Wristwatch” from their first album. This might reflect the lack of focus that I feared would hurt this release.

Still, by the time the last track floats in, I’m sold. “One Hundred Miles Off” when listened to from beginning to end, plays like a bittersweet dream, and “Another One Goes By” is the perfect closer. The band lays down a tired loungy shuffle, and Leithauser waxes melancholy and a little more metaphysically than usual about watching the world unfold before him while making the occasional tentative attempt to seize his place in it. This brings the rest of the tracks, and the Walkmen’s whole approach, into greater focus—though part of their charm is that they’ll always be a little hazy.

The lack of individually great songs might keep this from eventually being remembered as being the Walkmen’s classic album, but overall, “One Hundred Miles Off” resonates more profoundly than their first two albums, and then anything else you’re likely to hear this year.

Since they are playing with Mazarin, I included the Walkmen doing a nice Mazarin cover (via somuchsilence.com)
MP3::Another One Goes By


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