What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours

As Fleetwood Mac sang, “you can go your own way, (go your own way-e-yay) you can call it another lonely day” but were they right to sing that? How easy is is to actually go your own way after all is said and done?

Music is littered with people who played in bands and then went solo. With, shall we say mixed results? For every George Michael who stepped up from a very awful band, to just a pretty awful solo career, there is a Feargal Sharkey, who left The Undertones and wrote A Good Heart, a song even Wham! would be a tad ashamed of.

There is also of course, a lot of people who were in great bands and released great solo albums. Lou Reed left The Velvet Underground and wrote the utterly brilliant album Transformer, David Byrne continues to wow under various guises even though he left Talking Heads behind some time ago, and Bjork is now certainly more well known than she ever was as a member of the Sugar Cubes.

Whilst those examples might seem a while back, with upcoming releases from Jack White, Bob Mould and apparently Harry Styles on the way and the likes of Hamilton Leithauser and Conor Oberst leaving cult indie hitmakers behind for a life on their own. Maybe going your own way in 2014 is still a brilliant idea, and if none of those float your boat, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance has signed to Warner, maybe there is a solo artist for every set of ears, after all.

In November last year, there was much weeping and a’hollering here at For The Rabbits at the news that much loved New Yorkers, The Walkmen were going on a dreaded “indefinite hiatus” or as they actually put it, an extreme hiatus. It seemed odd timing in many ways; their career had long been in the shadow of the all encompassing single, The Rat, however many years had passed since then, and the band had released a string of stunning albums. You & Me, Lisbon and what, for the time being at least, would turn out to be there final album, Heaven. They were finally getting brilliant reviews without everyone feeling the need to compare every track to a certain rodent.

Looking at the statement put out by bass player, and organist Peter Bauer, the reasons became a bit more clear. The Walkmen were no longer a gang, as they put it “it’s not archetypal rock band where everyone lives in an apartment”, they were living in different cities, they all had their own priorities and three of them were already working on solo recordings. Peter Matthew Bauer’s debut solo album Liberation is out on June 23rd. Multi-instrumentalist, Walter Martin released a delightful album of songs for children, entitled We’re All Young Together featuring Karen O, Matt Berninger and even The Walkmen’s own Hamilton Leithauser.

It is inevitably with Hamilton Leithauser though, that the most expectation lays. It is inevitable really that singers garner the majority of the attention, they are of course blessed, or perhaps cursed of the one unchangeable sound a band possesses. A guitarist can buy a new guitar, fiddle with the settings, and do whatever he wants to get away from the sound that made him famous, a singer though possesses just one voice. For all the studio trickery available, you will never quite step away without sounding a bit like your past, especially if your vocal has all the stunningly unique qualities Hamilton possesses.
Whilst Hamilton’s voice remains inescapably his own, with the first single from this, his debut solo album, musically it is clear he is moving on. Alexandra is a deliriously, messy affair, out of the context of the album it was a little bit too much to take in. All blaring harmonicas and deranged marimbas, it has the feel of a runaway mine train, yet somehow stays on track and makes for a really quite delightful ride. Whilst the harmonica blast, recalls Bob Dylan as Hamilton often does, the presence of collaborator Rostam Batmanglij doesn not go unnoticed, the track unquestionably recalls, the complex pop of Vampire Weekend, with whom Rostam completes his day job.
The album is, perhaps understandably, something of an eclectic affair. The inevitable result of a game of stick or twist plays out across the album. Part of him knows making a duplicate of The Walkmen’s stunning output would keep his fanbase largely on side, part of him knows that long term he has to stamp his own blue-print onto his solo output if he’s going to make a go of it. Remarkably it is a balancing act he pulls off, seemingly with ease.

Leithauser is arguably at his best when he strips back the layers. There are a couple of absolutely stunning piano ballads, he has all the poise of Sinatra, mixed with the world outlook of Tom Waits in the 70’s. If Hamilton declared the piano had been drinking not him, you would not believe him anymore than you would Mr Waits himself. 5AM is all plodding piano, and some strings the right side of ominous. Lyrically, we find him questioning himself, “Do you wonder why I even sing these love songs, when I have no love at all?” The percussion, stomps out like a slow death march as Hamilton, goes all matter of fact on the person behind the song declaring “promises I never failed and never made” before, as the piano plays out, fittingly alone, he parts with the ominous declaration “they’ll thank me in the end.” St Mary’s County is another delightfully boozy ballad, all heavy choppy piano chords, and his ability to make anything sound romantic remains as he croons “I know the way, but I’ll ask you all the same” it’s beautiful.

Elsewhere, he steps away from The Walkmen sound in a more unique fashion. The album is punctuated with some stunning percussion and the near omnipresence of marimba. The Silent Orchestra is wonderful; it starts of with the familiar bouncing guitar lilt that made The Walkmen famous, but via the aforementioned marimba it reaches into brave new territory. Lyrically he asks us to believe in him, stating “I’ll hang my hat on the songs that I’m singing” his confidence is well deserved if you write songs as wonderful as this. The whole thing breaks down to a beautiful acapella section, his stunning voice holding the whole thing together, before bursting back into life via a marimba and drums combo as it comes back in, it’s wonderful.

11 O’Clock Friday Night is delightfully playful, all marimba and good times, whilst I Retired, starts life as a Dylanish Country Stomper before collapsing to an odd croonerish outro, where the backing vocals shooby-doo-wop, before Hamilton leads them to a delightfully mob handed sing-along, it has got all the beautiful sense of brotherhood that’s normally the bastion of Elbow. Leithauser leading the crowd with “As long as I can keep the engine running, then all my friends will never be alone” it is beautiful in the fashion of a 11pm swaying, stumble home.

Fans of Hamilton’s previous output need look no further than the closing trio of tracks. I Don’t Know Anyone pairs some superb drums, with reverb laden guitars and his trademark yelped vocals. Lyrically, too it is classic Hamilton talking of “a life I always loved until I met you” and then declaring “don’t know why I need you, I don’t need anyone, I’m the last man running” it is typically unsure where it stands, and even less sure where he should be standing. Bless Your Heart matches stunning drumming, with a lazy meandering guitar line. Latterly it goes all serious and fairly dark via the presence of atmospheric percussion and a low buzzing organ line. As the vocal wails, the guitar picks up the intensity, as it reaches a crescendo it is pretty breathtaking.
Like any of the great singers, he knows to save the best for last. Closing track The Smallest Splinter, is frankly wonderful. A rapid kick drum beat plays off against a spine-tingling guitar line, Hamilton declaring “I guess, I probably love you more than anyone” perhaps it was all the vagaries that left him hear, begging for his love to “show him the man who would have shown more, give me the lions share of your love” as the track plays out it become clear he could never win her whole heart, but still he wants her to “give me a kiss and tell me I’m alright” and questions whether there is “a man who never disappoints” The songs builds and builds, there are no lurches through the gears, just a stunning steady evolution to a thrilling finale, the guitar playing is fantastic, the drums perfectly judged, it’s just a wonderful song.

The album as a whole is good, but what is even better is the future it hints at. Whilst the shadow of The Walkmen still hangs over this record, there is enough to suggest that in time he will step out of it. Hamilton Leithauser is a star in his own right, a compelling front man, a unique voice in the crowded industry, and an artist whos next move could well be something mind-blowing, whichever direction he steps in.

Black Hours is out now on Ribbon Music. Hamilton Leithauser plays The Green Man Festival in August.

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