A Hundred Miles Off
Okay. We get it. He sounds like Dylan. In reviews of the Walkmen's new CD, A Hundred Miles Off, critics are on Hamilton Leithauser's case for aping the vocal stylings of Bob Dylan. Well, maybe they're not on his case, they're just pointing it out because they can. But to me he sounds more like a woozy Neil Diamond roused from a hammock nap, still partially polluted with gin. And it's a humid afternoon. Too humid for hot coffee, but Neil wants it! Because he is almost sober, and he has some shit to tell you. And this is a Neil Diamond—woozy, let's not forget—who sings in a higher, more nasally key. And maybe he got up because some kid kept dropping fire ants on him. Because, Jesus, over the course of an album does he ever get worked up. At several turns his voice turns into a howl. And on the way to becoming a howl, it sounds a little like Steve Perry of Journey; and okay, on the infectious "Good for You's Good for Me," he does sound a lot like Dylan. (The real Neil Diamond should cover this song, by the way.)
I focus on this howl because on first and extended listenings, it often overpowers the rest of the instruments, including those mariachi horns on the CD's opener "Louisiana," which might bait-and-switch people into thinking, "Gee, this is going to be a fucking smorgasbord of rock and roll instrumentation." But in the end, most of what sticks is Leithauser's voice, singing the whole way through about shadows and dreams. Matt Barrick's drums—which march on relentlessly to the point of inspiring listener paranoia on "Emma, Get Me a Lemon"—are usually the only thing matching Leithauser's urgency.
None of the above is an attempt at a tricky way of saying the record is shitty. Because it doesn't sound shitty. It does sound "difficult," though. The guitars generally seem plucked from a surf recording or a Cass McCombs track, piped through a transistor radio. Beyond that, the group's ambition comes from delivering the less inviting arrangements without losing their humanity. The haunting "All Hands and the Cook" sounds like something David Lynch could have thrown in a movie in the 1980s, with an organ sawing an Eraserhead-sized hole right in the middle of the song. And the only thing to keep you from falling into it? Leithauser's wail.
Not that the group has ever been tagged as emotionless. Their biggest hit, "The Rat," from 2004's Bows and Arrows, was the rare collar-grabbing crystallization of rock and roll, youth and anger, that doesn't come off as corny after repeated spins. And if you listened closely, there was also a touch of self-indictment, which made it more of an endearing plea than a cynical lament. It wouldn't be overstating things to say they could have just retired after recording it.
This time out, Leithauser is still feisty, but the group's homage to their D.C. punk roots, "This Job Is Killing Me," doesn't swagger. Instead—despite the lapses into howling—he communicates best proffering a mildly frustrated slow burn. On "Brandy Alexander," Leithauser sings, "I'll tell you every dream/I'm holding for you and me," then follows it up a few bars later with, "Stop talkin' and listen to me/I'll tell you of every dream." And the dude does have dreams, plenty of them. On "Good for You's Good for Me," which sounds like something Dylan (not Bob) Thomas may have scribbled onto a napkin before passing out, he sweetly suggests, "Rent is high and climbing/Why don't you move in?/What the hell, you might as well try." In the end, if things go south, it'd make it a lot easier to hear him pounding on your wall.