I've always thought of the The Walkmen as men of much finesse and ease, of professionalism and self-control. But during the mid-point of their career-so-far they recorded a cover of the entirety of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats. An album written and recorded during their infamous “lost weekend” together, it's a record of reverential tributes to music from their rock 'n roll youths but also one of debauched looseness. The Walkmen's take on the record is a bit more polished and less interesting, but it certainly must've influenced (or was influenced by) their sessions for A Hundred Miles Off.
You see, this is an album that overturns my assumptions about the band. The songwriting isn't consistently strong and finessed. Nearly every song has a claustrophobic/dramatic feel thanks to the pervasive, borderline-dissonant guitar and organ sounds. Recorded during the Fall of 2005 into early 2006, A Hundred Miles Off has a definite 'cabin fever' atmosphere. It's a record for those random work nights where you realize you've been sleeplessly pacing around your apartment and you have to wake up in three hours for work. Much of the time, it has an energetic rush: 'Tenley Town' is the closest they'll ever get to punk rock. This is also a record for those reeling drunken nights when you've recently broken up with someone or are about to. 'All Hands and The Cook' sounds like a nervous breakdown and the lyrics read like fragments from a bitter, rambling email to an ex-girlfriend.
This is a record which, taken on an objective-as-possible critical metric, feels sloppy and tossed off, more akin to something by Pavement than The Walkmen. Yet I feel like this is the kind of album which sits in your collection until that perfect moment when it suddenly seems alive and makes sense to you. In this perfect moment, the chaotic collage art cover and the very-appropriate album title call out to you because you're not feeling like your usual self, either. Indeed, you feel “off”, or more precisely, “a hundred miles off.” Whatever has put you into this state seems deeply analogous to the late night intoxicated dramas of A Hundred Miles Off such that you are finally happy you bought this record.
As this album sits at the point before The Walkmen became consummate professionals on the excellent You & Me, there's a certain bent appeal to hearing them as slightly-younger men who probably drank and spilled their share of beer during the year or so these sessions, and those of their Pussy Cats cover, took place. They were temporarily the kind of guys who went out to bars more than two nights a week, who threw horn sections into their songs for the hell of it; A Hundred Miles Off staggers to a start with the reeling 'Louisiana', mariachi horns and all. Everywhere, but particularly on 'Emma, Get Me A Lemon', Hamilton Leithauser's vocals are at their most pinched and strained, as if he had recorded everything in one take after spending the better part of a day recovering from a hangover while listening to The Basement Tapes and Blonde On Blonde over and over.
A Hundred Miles Off is the weakest record in The Walkmen's career but that's only because this is a “let your hair down” affair. Held to the standards of even their debut, when they were still trying to shake the last remnants of the Jonathan Fire*Eater sound from themselves, it comes up a bit wanting. But you'll note I just said “a bit”, because the more I listen to this album, and the more times I hear it in a mindset of appropriate desperation and unsettled-ness about my life, the more I like it. This is music for times when you aren't so much depressed as you are unhappy. When you're not so much an alcoholic as a temporary lush who can't face harsh reality just yet because it's still too much for a sober mind and heart to deal with.