Hamilton Leithauser has a frayed rope of a voice. Like he just got done playing an entire show (plus encore) but now he’s gonna sing another couple ditties just for you and he isn’t gonna tone these puppies down none, no. He’s gonna go for the rafters again. What is a rafter but something to shake?
This worked excellently in his old band, the Walkmen. They were the classiest group of disheveled NYC punks you ever saw, and they ended their career on a series of high notes that includes the wonderful album Heaven. Leithauser’s back now, but he’s paired here with ex-Vampy Weeker Rostam Batmanglij instead of a gaggle of white-shirted dudes with their sleeves haphazardly rolled up to mid-forearm like before. Does this mean Leithauser has gone collegiate on us?
No, thankfully. Instead, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine sounds like a downstairs neighbor you’ve never met singing along to his old rock n’ roll and doo-wop records at far too late an hour. I know that this would normally be a nightmarish scenario, but Leithauser has that voice. Get that sucker floating up the radiator pipes at 3AM and only the stodgiest or sleepiest would complain.
It’s not like the Walkmen were too far removed from this type of thing either. Take “Stranded” off of Lisbon, which is an excellently subdued song, born of the same inspirations and blown wide open by Leithauser’s roar. Nothing on I Had a Dream reaches those same heights. But take a little Motown breakdown like the one on “Rough Going,” throw in that voice, and everything seems to make perfect sense.
I wish I could speak more to the Batman, but whereas the thread from Walkmen to present is full and bright, I lose the plot pretty quickly on the Vampirical front. These instrumentals, which I assume are the work of both gentlemen but which I will prescribe to the less vocal member for ease’s sake, don’t distinguish themselves. They don’t wear influences on their sleeves so much as they bash you over the brains with them. This is fine. They do exactly what they need to do, which is to give Leithauser suitably familiar jungle gyms upon which to climb. At most, we’re talking a familiar drum beat, a warm little bass groove, some guitar plucks. Maybe a slide guitar if the guys are feeling saucy. Shift any variable in any direction a little bit and you could pass this stuff off as country, rock, soul, you name it.
By which I mean, if this album is just Leithauser groovin off a bunch of stuff that sounds exactly like old records spinning on a blown-out hi-fi, well, that’s good enough for me. I imagine it doesn’t maintain in the same way that either gent’s past work has, but it makes no such pretensions anyways. In essence, my suggestion: surrender your slumber a bit before you go complaining to the landlord.
All that said:
Dear The Walkmen,
I miss you.
Hamilton Leithauser is best known as the singer and front man for acclaimed indie outfit the Walkmen. His new project is a collaboration straightforwardly named Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, finding him paired up with Rostam Batmanglij. Do you know who Rostam Batmanglij is? No? It’s fine. I didn’t either! Well, at least I thought I didn’t when I first heard their new record I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, but more on that later.
At first blush this album sounds a lot like something the singer and front man from the Walkmen would make. It could simply be Leithauser’s distinctively thin, teetering-on-the-edge-of-breaking croon and ragged shout, but many of the songs (see “A 1000 Times” and “The Morning Stars”) would be at home on Lisbon or You & Me. In fact, much like the Walkmen, the songs tend conjure images of late nights where people hide from bright city lights in dim bars, sipping their preferred personal poison. This is generally pleasant, and should be a comfortable space for fans of the Walkmen. “But hang on one dang second,” you, the keen and discerning listener will say to yourself. “Hamilton Leithauser is only the first half of this equation.”
And you would be right, as usual. Somewhere in the middle of my first time listening through this record, I had that same thought. I decided it would be prudent to find out exactly who this “+ Rostam” character was, and in doing so, hopefully identify why what I was hearing wasn’t simply a Hamilton Leithauser solo record. So like the resourceful person-who-reviews-music-every-few-years that I am, I turned to the internet for help. And as chance would have it, I actually did know who he was, just not by name. I knew him as “that guy who had left Vampire Weekend.” Look out! We have a SUPER DUO!
I actually very much dislike the way any group of musicians who come together from other groups of musicians get the “supergroup” treatment. And does it really even apply here? Vampire Weekend is known well enough in their own rite, and the Walkmen had been critical darlings for about a decade. But supergroup is a lazy term. It’s a heuristic, a shortcut we use in conversation to communicate to one another that the members did other music-type things before they got together to make new music-type things. Not to mention that I (and likely many other fans) probably only knew Vampire Weekend as Ezra Koenig + some other dudes. But apparently that appraisal is not all that accurate! Rostam was heavily involved in songwriting with Vampire Weekend. He was their multi-instrumentalist utility man and largely handled the production of all three of their albums.
So, can you call them a super duo? Maybe. The label itself is unimportant, but it is not meaningless. It does inform certain expectations we have as listeners. Knowing that the members of a group come from different musical backgrounds can change the way we listen to them and what we hear. In this case, it helps us tease out Rostam’s otherwise subtle hand on this record. So, even though supergroup is a lazy term, I happen to be an exceptionally lazy person. They are a super duo. The tunes bear this out.
In general, fans of the Walkmen will find the atmosphere of I Had a Dream comfortable, welcoming and quite in line with the creative progression of the Walkmen themselves. On their later records, the Walkmen sounded weathered and experienced, if a bit tired out; that feeling broadly persists in Leithauser’s lyrics here. He laments his graying hair and aging. But there is something else; he sounds restless and preoccupied with movement and change. It’s not hard to read this as autobiographical considering the Walkmen’s current hiatus and Leithauser’s new artistic ventures. Regardless, his contribution is steady; the man can still front a band, there is no doubt of that.
But what about his newfound, vampiric accomplice? Not knowing who Rostam is makes his contribution more difficult to immediately pin down. In fact, being aware of his role in Vampire Weekend is what really brings the almost shy subtleties of his part to the forefront of the record. The first instance where, to my ear, his touch is unmistakable is “Peaceful Morning” – a fliting, quiet piano line almost transported from a fade out of Modern Vampires of the City floats throughout the tune. It appears again in the spaces between brass-driven romps on “When the Truth is…” carrying the song out in a way that should be recognizable to Vampire Weekend fans. The number “You Ain’t That Young Kid” even features the harpsichord tones that appear to be one of Rostam’s staples as a member of Vampire Weekend. The swirling strings on the album’s closer “1959” also harken Rostam’s former band. Suddenly his input ceases to be subtle and instead stands right out. It’s almost as if Rostam, who, before our well-timed internet search, was an obscure member of Vampire Weekend, is showing us just how much he actually had to do with their sound. Dare I say that maybe that that sound was his, and not theirs, the whole time? It may lead one to be curious how Vampire Weekend’s sound may change without him.
All that aside, Rostam’s work on I Had a Dream is as strong as it ever was with Vampire Weekend. His skill as a multi-instrumentalist and producer help create a sound that is both familiar and dynamic. Leithauser’s charming, scratchy voice completes the scene. Simply by virtue of being the front man, Hamilton Leithauser’s unique delivery stands out. But I Had a Dream is just as much a statement for Rostam as it is for those of us who bother to type his name into a search bar.
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is out now courtesy of Glassnote Records.