The guitars start at a lilt, and the gritty croon of vocalist Hamilton Leithauser is unmistakable: you know you're listening to the Walkmen. And by the time "Louisiana" ends, in an increasingly insistent sonic carnival of trumpet, piano and an almost-Caribbean beat, you also know the band has raised the stakes. A HUNDRED MILES OFF, the Walkmen's third record, and the eagerly awaited follow-up to 2004's Bows and Arrows, is also the band's best work to date.
The (mostly) New York City five-piece-Leithauser, Walter Martin, Peter Bauer, Matt Barrick and Paul Maroon-crafted A HUNDRED MILES OFF with their usual patience and perfectionism, discarding songs, swapping out the instruments each member played and finally, leaving their own Marcata Studio to get it right. "A lot of stuff just didn't sound new to us," says Leithauser. "You keep trying until it sounds new. Then you've finally got 12 songs you like, and that's your record." Packed with rockers, hymns and richly textured pop, with both wedding songs and drinking songs, A HUNDRED MILES OFF stakes out fresh and colorful new ground while retaining both a certain familiar fragile dynamism and the unabashed electric power of the Walkmen's breakout song "The Rat."
The Walkmen became a band around 2000, but their history together goes back several decades. Leithauser and Martin are first cousins who grew up on the same street; four of the band's five members went to the same Washington, D.C.-area high school. In the mid to late '90s Leithauser and Bauer were in the Recoys, while Martin, Barrick and Maroon were three-fifths of Jonathan Fire*Eater. After JF*E broke up the trio began assembling Marcata, which shares a pre-Depression-era building with, among other things, a Harlem NYPD precinct; the Walkmen coalesced around the studio and released its first CD, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, in 2002.
Then came Bows and Arrows, which debuted at No. 8 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart and was one of the most acclaimed records of that year. "Their confidence is overwhelming… a triumphant album,' Pitchfork's Eric Carr raved in a 9.2 review. "A band that's grown tighter, hungrier, and more varied," said David Browne of Entertainment Weekly, who put the record on his 2004 Top 10.
Many months of touring followed; to kill time on the road the band began work on, of all things, a collective novel called John's Journey. They appeared twice on the David Letterman show and performed on the hit TV series The O.C.
Of course the road, and all the other bells and whistles of success, took the band away from what it likes the most-writing and recording. "It takes you a while to get back into the groove of writing songs," Leithauser says. This time around, the band did a lot of composing on their own, in part because of geographic separation-Maroon and Barrick both now make their home in Philadelphia. Working on piano and guitar, Maroon demoed in his home studio; Leithauser and Martin worked at Marcata, though they usually ignored the high-tech gear and stuck to four-track. "Yeah, we'd go into this huge studio and work in a tiny, tiny room," Martin says. "It's the size of a closet: a drum set, a guitar amp and two people."
When the whole band did gather in Harlem, the sessions simply weren't happening. They needed the discipline of being somewhere on a schedule, and, especially, a pair of outside ears to run the tape machine. Enter Don Zientera, the engineer at Inner Ear in Arlington, VA. Leithauser had interned at the studio when he was still in high school; nearly every big D.C. band has recorded there, including Bad Brains, Fugazi and Nation of Ulysses. The Walkmen still served as their own producers; Zientera allowed them to focus on their sound and their performance without getting caught up in technical details. He was also a good fit aesthetically. "Most of the stuff we've done is very live and straight, without effects or anything, and Don's great at that," says Martin. "Plus, we could stay at our parent's houses while we were there."
The Walkmen's longtime familiarity with each other "makes it easier and harder," says Leithauser. "Sometimes there's no surprises in our styles, but in the end it's better because you've got a feel for everybody's playing." Nevertheless, one thing that got the record going was a major change within the band-Martin, who had previously played organs, switched instruments with bassist Bauer. "I thought it'd be a really fun change for both of us," says Martin. Live, it's opened up a lot of possibilities; in the past, Martin would play the organ and Maroon would either play piano or guitar; now, Bauer primarily plays piano and organs, as well as gourd and lap steel while Barrick remains behind the drums.
Leithauser says once they finally had one song they were happy with, the rest of the album flowed, and on A HUNDRED MILES OFF that song was the insinuating, martial, "Don't Get Me Down (Come on over Here)" "It had a vibe for us," he says. "It's not immediately-hard hitting, it's a slow builder, but I think it has the longest replayability."
Other highlights include "Emma, Get Me a Lemon," with its dreamily insistent guitar hooks and percussive patter, the charming "Another One Goes By," which is actually a cover (it was written by a friend--Quentin Stoltzfus of Mazarin) and "Louisiana," which, before anyone asks, was written pre-Katrina. Other highlights include the rock-solid bass-and-drum foundation of "Danny's At The Wedding," and the swing-meets-Leonard Cohen shanty "All Hands and the Cook," which Martin highlights as his favorite. "That might be because it was one of the last ones written," he says. "I think it sounds like our next record will sound."
Actually, the Walkmen's next record is already in the can: it's a cover of a covers album, Harry Nilsson's Pussycats, that the band recorded quickly as a farewell to Marcata (the studio is closing, thanks to new landlord Columbia University's plans for the building). But that's a subject for another time. In the here and now, A HUNDRED MILES OFF is all the Walkmen anyone could need-the sound of a great young rock'n'roll group re-imagined and refined.