Album Review: Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – ‘I Had a Dream That You Were Mine‘

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Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij’s other bands are finely balanced examples of how narrow the margins can be between cult proposition and relative success.

Whilst the former’s outfit The Walkmen retain a fiercely devoted but niche retinue, Vampire Weekend‘s preppy afrobeat duly evolved into festival main stage goodness, with all the fringe unit-shifting benefits that associated.

With both groups on hiatus, the duo  – who first met when VW opened for The Walkmen in Atlanta in 2008 – have found themselves able to express each other not so much in the guise of respective alter egos, but instead to explore musical tangents which in this composite are unexpected and rich in character.

I Had a Dream That You Were Mine‘ in tone is therefore unlike either of their familial bands, but full of their distant cousins, a wistful swirl of throwbacks aplenty. Whilst sonically bearing some of the hallmarks of a hipster, back-to-analogue production modus operandi, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Batmanglij has been working with the likes of Charlie XCX, and all is not quite not as nostalgic as it seems, the duo claiming in public that it’s modern technology making such nostalgic sounds.

Leithauser regardless is in his element: coming in and out of the spotlight to startling chromatic effect, his grizzled delivery rounding out the pathos of ‘The Bride’s Dad‘, a Tom Waits-esque romp that bears the car-crash regrets felt by a sad man on a happy day.  Also in this splenetic, rickety jazz-blues humour lies ‘When The Truth Is‘, the singer’s wail, mad love and a groovy, parping sax all swinging like a car about to break down full of passengers with different places to go.

It would’ve been perhaps easier for the pair just to create a new vehicle for this project, but to their credit they took the brave decision to simply apply both their given names to it and let taste, and to a greater extent fortune, decide its fate. It was a decision based on similar thinking by David Byrne and Brian Eno, but although this fare isn’t stuff of that hefty gravitas – nor you suspect do its players want it to be – their willingness of association shows both integrity and grit.

There’s room for pride too. The weary honky-tonk of ‘You Ain’t That Young Kid‘ staggers from moment to moment, a drunk raising a 3 am toast to himself, the mood flipping from melancholy to despair and back again circuitously. What it neatly illustrates is the album’s single most appealing quality; that the point of the exercise isn’t two showbiz bros bathing themselves in recherché cool, but instead the premise of throwing characters both bruised and broken into its centre, the sha-doobies of ‘Rough Going‘ not ironic props but method-composing, a backwards-forwards look with adoration in the vein of Stephen King.

This hybrid veneration is most obvious at the beginning and the end: closer ‘1959‘ recalls the pre rock n’ roll era of Frankie Avalon and a million other heartthrob bands, almost spectrally light, whilst after the rolling piano introduction to the title track Leithauser croons, “those ancient years were black and white”, whilst his smoke filled words tell an old time story of obsession and empty handedness with flair and immaculate pathos.

Like sleight-of-hand, the duo have assembled ‘I Had a Dream That You Were Mine’ from materials both old and new, recycling, distressing new technology into a backwards compatible mess of fine old echoes and funk. A partnership for agnostics and romantics alike, it sits at a bar stool next to you in any town, ready to pour its stories over the rocks.

It’s a time machine worth taking.

(Andy Peterson)

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