Let’s do an exercise: imagine that you’re at your favorite local joint and in a dusty corner stands a somewhat saturnine singer, crying into a standing mic while a man in the shadows accompanies him with an old piano and soft backup vocals. Now, imagine that the singer is former Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser and the genius on the piano is ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij.
If you’re excited by this scenario, then you’ll be happy to know that these two indie rock masterminds have teamed up for a full album, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. Batmanglij (known simply as Rostam professionally ) and Leithauser met and collaborated in 2014 for Leithauser’s first solo project, the Sinatra-inspired Black Hours. They soon formed a friendship over shared origins – both originally hail from Washington D.C – and a mutual sense of respect and admiration.
The album masterfully combines Leithauser’s rough-and-ready bad boy howl with Rostam’s smooth production and international influence; a hint of Afro-pop influences, similar to those that carried VW’s first album, are noticeable in the background of certain tracks. The instrumentals follow a vintage sound throughout, where the doo-wops and the continual plink of a piano are accompanied by sparse drums and subtle horns.
The album begins with “A 1000 Times,” which sneaks the album title into the chorus. The track is a good litmus test for what is yet to come, but is admittedly one of the less imaginative tracks in the collection. “Rough Going (I Don’t Let Up),” otherwise known as “that track with the doo-wops,” is a melange of sounds and musical genres. A bass beat reminiscent of a barnyard boogie underlays Rostam’s polite background vocals, with Leithauser’s ragged howl at the forefront of the track.
On “You Ain’t That Young Kid” Leithauser speak-sings, painting an intimate picture of a man nursing a broken heart; the lyrics here are deliciously heavy and human. Clever tempo changes keep the track from feeling cut off. The first part features harmonica and plucked electric guitar, which then crescendos to feature an organ-like instrument and a slowed tempo; Rostam’s signature arpeggios litter the bridge as a powerful beat almost overpowers Leithauser’s vocals. The last tempo change returns the track to a more even-tempered, reflective place, featuring Leithauser’s vocals once again.
“The Bride’s Dad” is the penultimate track, beginning with a wistful piano accompaniment and harmonies between the two artists; Leithauser’s timbre falls to his comfortable gravelly yell, while Rostam remains in the stratosphere. The track climaxes with a sudden crescendo, introducing thumping drums, hand clapping, and more forceful piano. The addition of the well-known synthetic choir accompaniment provides a moving finish. While the track is short, barely cutting off at two minutes, it is a powerful one.
I Had A Dream That You Were Mine centers around the general theme of loss, but the music disguises the darker lyrics well. The tracks remain musically diverse: at times there is a raw and uncut feel to tracks, loose drums and lyrics slung with a casual “je ne sais quoi” attitude that flirts with the sadboy mentality – a trademark of the Walkmen. At other times, Rostam’s prowess as a producer and his influence as a member of Vampire Weekend shine through, creating musical gems that sparkle through underneath Leithauser’s dusty vocals and soulful lyrics.
Album released: September 23, 2016
–review by Juliana Van Amsterdam