City Paper is not for tourists
A Hundred Miles Off
The official story of the Walkmen’s A Hundred Miles Off says the disc was recorded during a time of transition: Some members were relocating from New York to Philadelphia, the band’s once-exotic Harlem studio was no longer inspiring, there was a general outbreak of writer’s block, and everybody eventually chose to convene at Arlington’s Inner Ear Studio with D.C. überproducer Don Zientara providing guidance. That’s a surprising admission of self-doubt coming from a band that’s always been about selling the swagger. On 2004’s Bows + Arrows, the D.C. expatriates (four of them are St. Albans grads) scraped all the right nerves, deftly mixing alt-rock smarts and last-drink angst. But on A Hundred Miles Off, they’re wanderers and collectors. The intelligence is still there, and so is the ring of vintage amps and roller rink acoustics, but so many of the songs seem incidental. The only significant stylistic leap is by singer Hamilton Leithauser, whose yelps owe more and more to Rod Stewart’s early-’70s earthiness. “Lost in Boston/Drinking rum and chocolate/A hundred thousand blinking lights/Are making me exhausted,” Leithauser hollers at the beginning of “Lost in Boston,” which has an assertively strummed guitar riff and a nifty bass breakdown about midway through. It’s one of the few songs with big hooks, even though it’s about a guy who is tired before things even get rolling. And it takes half the album to get to that point: The opening track, “Louisiana,” written pre-Katrina, has bar-band charm but not much else; “Danny’s at the Wedding” and “Good for You’s Good for Me” sound as resigned as their titles might suggest; and the organ-heavy “All Hands and the Cook” goes nowhere. The second half of the disc offers some release, thank goodness. The slow-builder “Don’t Get Me Down (Come On Over Here)” would be worthy of Bows + Arrows, “Tenley Town” is a credible nod to basement hardcore, and afterward the guys are less cranky and far more Kinks-influenced. The ballad “Another One Goes By” closes things out with a bit of showmanship, with Leithauser crooning lines such as, “Don’t know what to offer you/When I’m only broke and lonely.” But ultimately, like much of A Hundred Miles Off, it has the air of roteness. The real identity crisis is plainly within the band itself. Instead of asking, “Where do we go from here?” the Walkmen should have pondered another question: “How much of this stuff actually matters?”—Joe Warminsky
The Walkmen perform at 10 p.m., Thursday, May 25, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V. St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.