2006 / Music

Review: Walkmen Album Is Half-Step In New Direction

New York Band Marries Noise-Rock With Pianos, Trumpets

“A Hundred Miles Off” is an appropriate title for the Walkmen’s new album.

Photo: Record Collection

Photo: Record Collection

The new disc is certainly a journey. The New York-based quintet is chaffing at their established noise-rock sound, but protesting in the most laidback fashion. Over a dozen tracks, the band is musically battling to shed its old skin to make room for a nuanced and less frenetic sonic identity — but only partially completes the job. Instead of showcasing their new interests, they bury their instrumental philandering with shaking jingle bells, piano glissandos and vocal choruses in a thick fog of trilling guitar and/or vibrating organ sustain.

We get hints of what’s to come but listeners will surely feel that they’re miles away from where the music suggests it’s headed.

There’s nothing on “A Hundred Miles Off” as mega and undeniably lovable as “The Rat,” a sonic vortex of a cut from 2004’s “Bows And Arrows.” The song helped the group earn some exposure on teen-heartthrob-filled nighttime soap opera, “The O.C.” Sadly, there’s little excitement in the new songs, and so, this batch of midtempo songs suffers from a feeling of sameness.

The album certainly doesn’t start that way. The opening song, “Louisana,” is the group’s most ambitious experiment. It’s a wheezy, carousel ride through summertime memories that frontman Hamilton Leithauser delivers with suitable fondness and remorse. Fleshed out with bright, ’50s-style guitar doodles and standup piano accents, the track culminates when a Mariachi horn section transports us from a seaside boardwalk to a bar on the Rio Grande border. The transition doesn’t make sense on paper but somehow works coming out of the speakers.

The succeeding song, “Danny’s At The Wedding,” is the first of many that’s cluttered with clanging guitar. A soggy bass lunges forward and recedes, caught in the song’s thick sonic middle. Here and throughout the record, master drummer Matt Barrick keeps the energy up and listeners awake.

Barrick seemingly gets his own showpiece — thundering in a tribal pattern on tom toms — on “Emma, Get Me A Lemon” during the song’s verses, until the song gets away from him to reveal a celebrative chorus in which all the racket finally comes together for a brief moment.

Leithauser really gets the spotlight on “All Hands And The Cook.” As a moody tandem of organ and guitar flutter and sway in the background, he sings with a Dylan-esque gruff and grit that deftly avoids enunciation and strains to capture emotions but never squeaks. Because of this and the stoic musical haze, tearjerking lines “break out the bottles when I go” can’t serve their purpose.

The song blends in the album’s only contender for a single, “Lost In Boston.” Leithauser is again leading listeners around, but his musical cohorts are more dynamic and aggressive in offering musical asides to his boozy caroling. Barrick keeps a pop rhythm while agitatedly working around the kit. The band’s bassist and erstwhile organist Walter Martin acquits himself with his new instrument at the song’s bridge with a simple, funky melody that eases the transition and then springs into the song’s climax.

There’s no such high points on “Brandy Alexander,” which comes across as if the Walkmen were trying out a song as a lounge combo. Leithauser croons in a new, lower register while Barrick hits the bongos like he’s one of Desi Arnaz’s less assured disciples. The song is a quick pit stop that the band seemed to give up on rather than work into a full act.

“Another One Goes By” is another return to the ’50s sound and in that way, sandwiches the album’s mostly monotone core. The song is arranged like a traditional Tin Pan Alley ballad, consisting of sunny guitar chords and a rigid, dance pattern on bass and drums. It also scores the record’s only guitar solo, albeit it functioning as more a melodic device than showboating.

It’s only at the record’s end — and after 11 songs filled with largely uneventful struggling — that the Walkmen begin to show signs that their musical conversion is complete. By far, the record’s biggest problem is that we see all the growing pains and so little fruit. We have to wait until next time to see what “A Hundred Miles Off” suggests.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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