Going Too Far

Excessive mileage takes its toll on studio whizzes the Walkmen, so how come their new album is their best yet?

With the MySpace revolution under way, an MP3 can land a record deal, but touring remains rock's baptism by fire. It can make you an alcoholic, wreck your voice, dull your talent and, in the grip of extreme boredom, inspire some pretty odd schemes. For a solid year after 2004's Bows + Arrowspropelled the Walkmen from minor Manhattan cult band to major national one, the quintet toured and toured and toured.

The mileage can be heard on the Walkmen's May 23 release A Hundred Miles Off--not to mention their latest tour. As lead singer Hamilton Leithauser tells it, the road trip to support Bows + Arrowssomehow negated the production skills that made the album a critic's fave. "We hadn't been in our own studio for so long," he says, "that when we got in there, we didn't even know how to turn things on."

For your average sonic tinkerers, this would be no big deal; for the Walkmen, it's nearly an identity crisis. This is a band that took the remainder of a major label advance from a previous incarnation (Jonathan Fire Eater, '95-'98) and built a fully loaded studio with vintage equipment, christening it Marcata Recording Studios. Obsessive hours at this one-time Nash car factory in West Harlem lent the band's 2002 full-length debut, as well as Bows + Arrows, an otherworldly but distinctly retro aura.

"It was just dreadful," says Leithauser of the band's first attempt after its early-'05 homecoming. "I think it's one of the worst recordings we've ever made, and that's including stuff from high school."

Having grown up together in Washington, D.C. (Leithauser and bassist Walter Martin are cousins), the band turned to Don Zientara, the sound engineer for Minor Threat, Fugazi and Shudder to Think. The result, A Hundred Miles Off, sounds looser, like the band's having fun--maybe for the first time.

"It's because they didn't have to push all the buttons and twist all the knobs," Zientara says. "I wanted them to just feel comfortable singing and playing."

Not that the Walkmen gave up all that much ground. "Every little part of every song was looked at by every member," Zientara recalls. "We looked at each piece under the microscope, then backed away and looked at it under a telescope. That's the way they are--they can't get away from thinking about it like engineers."

The band's previous records lend themselves to the critical gimmick of genre-melding simile--say, "like a British post-punk band tumbling through a time-warp into Tin Pan Alley"--and A Hundred Miles Offis even harder to pin down. The usual reverb-soaked guitars are accompanied by hard-core punk, Mexican horns and Caribbean vibes. In all, the palette is rustier and rootsier, and the sound can be called "folksy," an effect signaled by something new in Leithauser's already grainy vocals: a Dylanish frayed edge.

"[Dylan's] always been one of our favorites, so it's always on the brain," Leithauser says. "My voice got a lot scratchier, probably from all the touring. I can't make it not scratchy anymore. It's kind of a shame--I hope I'm not getting permanent damage."

This fatigue in his voice is a living symbol for the new album's themes--long days, a panorama of locales and a distinct jitteriness about relationships. The southern idyll of the title track ("Crossing through Tennessee/ Watching the sunrise/Thinking about a dream") and the blurry stumble of "Lost in Boston" ("A hundred thousand blinking lights/Making me exhausted") leave little to the imagination, but the Walkmen are once again breathing down each others' necks in the tour van. This time, they've figured out ways to pass the time; they're taking turns writing chapters for a collaborative novel, John's Journey (now on page 30), and keeping busy on the road distracts from the closing of Marcata by its landlord, Columbia University.

Leithauser seems grateful for the band's new penchant for creative diversion: "It keeps you, momentarily, from drinking yourself to death."

 
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