Hamilton Leithauser, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
2 LPs, $19.98, purchased at The Sound Garden, Syracuse NY
Hamilton Leithauser is a bit of a throwback. As a singer he's got one of those big voices, the type of voice that automatically pulls a guy to the front edge of the stage so he can give the audience goosebumps. We're not talking about a classically trained voice, the kind of voice you hear from American Idol contestants, but a meaningful voice that has a bit of a rasp to it, the kind of voice that's designed to sing rock and pop with a modicum of conviction. He does have a beautifully modulated vibrato thing going which remains surprisingly intact once he starts really yelling out the lyrics—something he does regularly. He sings like he means it, and he sings like he wants to sing like no one else without being too weird or quirky about it.
That showmanship was highlighted in his 2014 solo album, Black Hours, which featured the type of songs that convinces you he would have been perfect singing Jacquel Brel duets with Scott Walker back in the '70s. (Up to that point, Leithauser had been the singer for The Walkmen until they broke up the year before.) That album featured the types of songs meant to emphasize the singer, competently played but musically a little bland. What this guy needed was someone behind him playing all the instruments, someone just as inventive and unique as he was.
Enter Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend. Rostam's one of those multi-instrumentalists who are becoming so important to the indie scene these days (think Jonny Greenwood and the late Jay Bennett), someone had can add texture and depth to songs and really make them stand on their own. Put these two guys together and you get a throwback from a different, somewhat later era. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, their new collaboration, might make think you're listening to a great new LP from some folk-influenced New Wave singer from the UK circa 1983. While Leithauser's vocals are quite unique, all I kept thinking was these are the kinds of songs Mike Scott and Karl Wallinger use to sing thirty years ago.
Rostam delivers this familiar, old-fashioned feeling through the use of old-fashioned instruments. He's primarily known for his keyboard work, so you get plenty of rollicking piano riffs and a smooth Hammond B-3 flow that will make your upper body sway from side to side when you listen—especially on more upbeat tunes such as "Rough Going (I Won't Let Up)." Guitars are mostly acoustic, and drum kits are simple but played with enthusiasm. Harmonicas and banjos might make a cameo appearance here and there. Synthesizers and sampling are used, but in ingenious and understated ways that only add to the waves of nostalgia you'll feel when you hear these songs. There's not a lot to this album that feels modern, and that's a wonderful thing.
Speaking of the songs, they are what makes this album so remarkable. That sounds like an incredibly dumb and obvious thing to say until you start thinking about how much of today's music settles on moods, feelings and beats instead of actual songwriting. On this album you'll find the types of songs that are melodic and memorable, and that other people will cover in the future because they are just so damn cool. There's the classic piano-driven doo-wop of "When the Truth Is..." that's perfect for a slow dance at the prom if you're attending the hippest high school in the world, the freight-train hobo sing-song beat of "The Morning Stars," the gentle and spacious waltz of "The Bride's Dad," and the quietly incredible "In a Black Out," where Leithauser channels a bit of Bert Jansch to deliver a slow-burn of an epic folk song. All nine tracks on this album are carefully crafted and beautifully delivered—there isn't a superfluous tune in the bunch. Plus, the recording quality is excellent with lots of wet space and depth and reverb, along with crisp drumming that shakes the floorboards.
It's not easy to define what's so appealing about an album like this, other than the fact that great songs played well and sung with conviction aren't necessarily a thing of the past. It certainly isn't the album cover, which is so dorky and precious that I almost passed this album by the first time. (This is a rare example of the art direction having almost nothing in common with what's inside.) But of all the great albums I've heard this year—and there have been many—this is the one that's simply satisfying in a strange, nebulous way I haven't felt since I was much younger.