By Tom Lynch
Since the beginning, New York City’s The Walkmen have found solace in fuzz—the band has always delivered a spastic sonic boom that assaults the ears in likeable ways, sixties pop with a strange, scrappy garage element that keeps the crew grounded. “Bows and Arrows” was quite an accomplishment, with the album’s “The Rat” serving as the breakout rock song that brought attention to the group, even though it can be argued that the record, in all, is quite inconsistent, the deeper tracks ignorable at best. Live, the band’s energy comes through with a reserved intensity—it seems The Walkmen are best suited for a different decade, the sixties maybe, where it would be the toughest band around.
“A Hunded Miles Off,” the band’s latest on Record Collection, while slightly dissimilar to its predecessors, is predictably vintage, a path the band seemed to be galloping down, triumphantly, even during its second record. Hamilton Leithauser, the band’s frontman, croons his not-so-serious wordplay like a drunken Bob Dylan, loosey goosey and delightfully inarticulate. The similarity between his vocal styling and that of Dylan’s are so strong that it’s nearly impossible for it not to be recognized immediately upon hearing the album. But, thankfully, those comparisons fade when it becomes clear that “A Hundred Miles Off,” with all of its oddities, abandons true hipster-chic and psychedelically floors on and on into an oblivion of piercing electric guitars and hyper-hearted drumming.
“We never know what we want to do when we write songs,” Leithauser says of the band’s creative technique. “If we try to do something it always seems to get us in a rut that we can’t get out of. It’s always sort of free-form, take what you can get.” While the songs are pop-friendly and short, the still-sprawling nature of the majority implies a spontaneity during the songwriting process, a jam-session-put-to-tape-and-then-fine-tune method. “The way that it works,” Leithauser says, “is that we’ll write in smaller groups, do little parts that sort of fit. We put it all together and see if that works. Then I can do the words and maybe we’ll try to play it together. The problem is when we try to do it all with the five of us, and it never works out like that, just trying to hammer it out.”
Leithauser sees “A Hundred Miles Off” as a step forward for the band, advanced from the previous records and more cohesive. “I think it’s more solid from the beginning to the end,” he says. “Each song carries its own weight. I like that we sort of made it so it’s not so in-your-face, flashy. I’m sure it won’t be on the airwaves or anything, but I think the songwriting has come a long way.”
Another immediate reaction to “A Hundred Miles Off” is to the manner in which it was recorded—the musical slack and daring, almost lo-fi quality surprises. “We didn’t use very many instruments that we’re not gonna use during the live show,” Leithauser says. “We recorded it all at the same time [including the vocals]. It was the opposite of how we did ‘Bows and Arrows.’”
The lyrically light nature of many of the record’s songs comes as a relief, as well, in a time when bands are becoming more and more serious—The Walkmen present their songs like the members would tell a tale in a booth at a pub. For instance, “Danny’s at the Wedding” simply tells the story of Danny, a cousin of a band member, who was, indeed, at “the wedding.” Another, “This Job Is Killing Me,” is about a tour-bus guide.
“I try a lot of times to make the songs really specific, like ‘Danny’ and ‘This Job Is Killing Me,’” Leithauser says. “I can’t stand music that’s very serious. It’s the worst. There’s no fun in it. It’s just the worst, guys creating art, and it’s dead serious. It’s just so calculated. I don’t want to listen to it.”
Does he take that attitude on tour with him? “We just like bitching about stuff,” he says. “You’re away from home, in a bar every night. It’s a lot of work, but it’s part of the job.”
The Walkmen play June 1 at Metro, 3730 North Clark, (773)549-0203, at 9pm. $16.