Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours | Album Review | By Volume

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Hamilton Leithauser

Black Hours

Good enough for me to stop holding a grudge in this post-Walkmen wasteland.

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Author: on June 10, 2014
Ribbon Music

I would follow Hamilton Leithauser and that beautiful, sand-blasted voice of his to the ends of the earth, or at least off a short New York City pier. For my money, his on-hiatus band, the Walkmen, are (or were) one of the greatest rock bands of the modern age, symbolizing a continuity and a growth rare for a group in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it millennium. It wasn’t just the shift from tempestuous bar flies to respectable parents grappling with stasis and the very plaid concerns of being 40, but how they welcomed you into their struggle. Their last three records – 2008’s You & Me, 2010’s Lisbon, and 2012’s Heaven – remain a peak I doubt many bands will be able to match, a beautiful arc about adults becoming Adults. So, yes, when I listen to Black Hours and hear that gorgeous, distinctive voice, I’m not exactly impartial; I fall in love immediately. And this is a problem; with a record like Black Hours, it’s hard to begrudge Leithauser his turn in the solo spotlight. It makes it that much harder to let a sleeping dog lay.

Black Hours can generally be described as a natural extension of the Walkmen when we last saw them, idling away into contented parenthood. The sound is lush, and tasteful too; “5 AM,” with its shadowed piano and gradual crescendo of horns and thumping drums, is a fitting introduction to a songwriter in complete command of his image. Song titles like “Self Pity” and “I Don’t Need Anyone,” not to mention the record title itself, would seem to presage the kind of turgid singer-songwriter tropes Leithauser so adeptly avoided with the Walkmen, but Black Hours is on the whole a surprisingly upbeat baroque pop record. “The Silent Orchestra” hops and skips, switching the rancid beer of the Walkmen’s favorite ramshackle bar for the velvet ropes and respectable bite of a jazz club. The handclaps and woozy background vocals on “Alexandra” are positively anthemic. And “Self Pity” – those guitar tones, courtesy of Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon, chiming so bright and clear, on the verge of being shattered; this just the kind of melody Leithauser’s voice ties itself so effectively to, a sad song that’s anything but.

A look at the production credits creates the worry that there may be too many cooks in the kitchen – Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, the Shins’ Richard Swift, the occasional assist from fellow Walkmen bandmates – but Black Hours never seems like anything more or less than Leithauser’s show. In its creative discretions, from the worn Sinatra of “5 AM” and the lingering “St. Mary’s County,” to the rollicking doo-wop of “I Retired” and the orchestral defiance of “The Smallest Splinter,” Leithauser always feels at home, the record’s undeniable centerpiece. There are songs here that sound like Walkmen songs (particularly the swaggering “I Don’t Need Anyone,” which, sure, of course you don’t, Hamilton, but maybe not anyone?) and songs that steer far and wide from Leithauser’s roots. Those are the songs that stick the longest – the lounge-y, haunting “5 AM,” the tropical dalliance with Amber Coffman on “11 O Clock Friday Night” – but they do it by always retaining that wistful, throaty Leithauser element at their forefront.  Leithauser has always seemed eminently in control, even when he’s on the verge of tearing out his vocal cords and stumbling out onto the frozen streets drunk and single, and Black Hours is no exception. It’s the perfect template for that singer-songwriter record, adventurous yet still most definitely within its personality’s artistic wheelhouse. This is a Hamilton Leithauser record, and everything that entails,and nothing more: heartfelt; predictably enjoyable, even elegant. It’s a portrait of a man content yet not so much as to sit on his ass and relive the glory days. It’s the type of record that can almost make me forget about the Walkmen. Almost.

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