The first listen to each Walkmen album goes about the same: songs whir by in a reverb-drunk haze, guitars ringing, organs buzzing, pianos plinking, drums rumbling, and Hamilton Leithauser delivering quaint, if melancholy lyrical snapshots. But, with continued rotations, each album comes more into focus, its identity solidified by listen three or four. Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, the band’s debut, was sort of like a brisk walk on a snowy street in the afternoon. It’s follow-up, the outstanding Bows + Arrows, was more like a continuation of that same day, but later in the evening, furnace blazing, music blasting, but with lonesome hearts still peeking outside to see the delicate snowflakes flutter toward the earth. While those albums were very much of a wintry variety, A Hundred Miles Off, the band’s third album, finds the snow melting, flora blooming and the sun just barely peeking out from behind a quickly fading cloud.
Something is definitely brighter and more optimistic on A Hundred Miles Off, an album that, while very much a Walkmen record, displays a side of the band not often seen. On Bows + Arrows, the NY fivesome swerved back and forth between the blazing rockers (“The Rat”, “Little House of Savages”) and the quiet, dreamy ballads (“Hang On, Siobhan”, “138th Street”), seldom stopping in the middle. A Hundred Miles Off, however, remains a largely mid-tempo affair, never quite firing all cylinders like they did in “The Rat,” yet never slowing to the glacial pace of many of the first album’s more sedate lullabies. Instead, the album flows more like a live set, keeping up a rocking pace from start to finish.
Suffice to say, anyone afraid that the band might have cast aside their louder, faster side can put their fears to rest. A Hundred Miles Off is a rock album, but one that stretches out over 12 tracks without becoming boring or overly exhausting. Like Bob Dylan paired with a horn section, “Louisiana” opens the album with a lazy, yet catchy melody, easing the listener into the album with its easy tones and vivid imagery: “drinking our coffee/under the canopy/never saw the morning/slept through half a day.” With its descending basslines and melancholy overtones, “Danny’s At the Wedding” diverts from the summery mood of “Louisiana” temporarily, but forgivably. This is, however, the sort of thing the band has done quite brilliantly for the past half-decade.
A surfy guitar and drum sound permeate “Good For You’s Good For Me” and “Emma Get Me A Lemon,” the latter particularly noteworthy for its simple opening lyrics, “Emma get me a lemon/and if there are none/get me a lime.” All throughout the first four songs, the most noticeable change in the band’s sound is the absence of buzzing organs, which gave Bows + Arrows its distinct sound. Those organs are restored on “All Hands and the Cook,” however, a deliciously dark song with a sadistic bridge:
“Stop talking to the neighbor’s dog
I got a temper when it’s late
Break all the windows in my car
Burn down the room when I’m asleep
Break out the bottles when I go
I’ll dig a hole for all your friends”
The darker moments on the album provide a stark contrast to the more prominent, upbeat tracks, such as the fantastic “Lost in Boston,” which, aside from having the catchiest melody here, contains an amusing line about Fleet Week, sailors, “mini skirts and high heeled shoes.” From there, the band careens through speed punk on “Tenley-Town,” the Velvet Underground as filtered through tropical rhythms on “Brandy Alexander,” and even a cover of “Another One Goes By,” originally performed by chums Mazarin.
While it’s fair to say that A Hundred Miles Off doesn’t have the dramatic highs and lows of its predecessor, it’s a consistently solid listen, with more rock than we’re typically used to with the band. Seemingly less concerned about a good single than a great album from start to finish, the Walkmen deliver just that, with maybe even one or two of the former disguised somewhere in the middle.