Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam - I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
by Ben Gladman
If you’ve heard of neither Hamilton Leithauser nor Rostam, don’t worry. Not many have. Leithauser normally sings for rock band The Walkmen, most known for their single The Rat. His energetic, emotional growl sounds at home when backed by his band’s frenetic garage rock distortion, which makes this collaboration all the more unlikely. Rostam is perhaps an underrated talent, writing much of Vampire Weekend’s catalogue and providing luscious arrangements that elevate their music above other bands of the genre. Few have ever drawn a comparison between the two bands, however, and you could be forgiven for thinking that such a project was doomed to fail.
The opening track and lead single of I Had A Dream dispels any concerns in seconds. 1000 Times begins tenderly, a meandering baroque piano and a soft bass lending warmth to Leithauser’s comforting lower register. His voice shines at a higher range, which he promptly flings himself into, a faint growl entering into his most strained notes. This is where the song truly begins, a crash of drums underscoring the newfound energy. It’s a repetitive track in terms of structure and melody, but Rostam’s arrangements prevent it from ever growing dull. Instruments come and go – an acoustic guitar whose strumming pattern is subtly subversive, an organ, a choir, even the occasional harmonica. The electric guitar that emerges for the final chorus ties the song together nicely, although the decision to end with a fade-out, one that reoccurs throughout the album, seems odd and a little unsatisfying.
Having praised Leithauser’s high, raucous singing, follow up track Sick As A Dog comes as a bit of a surprise. An understated song with minimal arrangements for the most part, Leithauser sticks to his lower register while a lovely bassline drives the song forward. The chorus sees the bass take even further priority, a sloppy fuzz that echoes Leithauser’s yelping. All of this is interesting musically, but the song stands out in the contrast between its two modes. The bridge is even quieter than the rest, nostalgic bass ripped right from Vampire Weekend’s later material, which makes the song’s explosion all the more arresting. A crash of drums, Leithauser is suddenly back in his higher range, and the first real instance of a really cool vocal effect that reoccurs in several songs. His vocals are not just double but triple tracked, all with slightly different rhythms, created a messy and incredibly energetic chorus effect.
In fact, Leithauser’s vocals stun in nearly every song here. In some cases they save an otherwise conventional track, such as Rough Going, whose other saving grace is the massive, thudding drum part. At other times, they elevate what was already a good song into something great. Blackout is a simple song with just Leithauser and a beautifully picked guitar for most of the duration. There are subtle touches, such as a choral backing reminiscent of Vampire Weekend’s song Yahweh, but these serve mostly to underscore Leithauser’s wonderfully restrained delivery. Peaceful Morning contains some of Rostam’s best piano lines in the bridge, which seem to pull the tempo back and forth with ease, before Leithauser steals the show with vocals so bombastic they almost lose the melody altogether. Another highlight, When The Truth Is opens with a lovely mellow guitar part before letting Leithauser, a piano, and some subtle backing vocals take the fore. His delivery is full of emotion; you can practically hear him choke on the word “stars”. Oddly though, the best moment of this song comes when the drums and brass clash and combine in the chorus. They both stab randomly in staccato bursts, and it’s impossible to quite pin down a rhythm or direction.
Like all good partnerships, this one is well balanced. As many times as Leithauser stuns with his voice, Rostam wows with his arrangements. The album is full of surprising time signature changes, shifts in tempo, sudden drops and explosions in volume. You’re never sure where exactly each song is going to go next, with neat ideas of genre thrown out of the window. The banjo lead folk tune Peaceful Morning falls into a tender piano ballad before you can even notice. Perhaps my favourite track, You Ain’t That Young Kid, starts as a ballad, with just a piano and vocals, before Leithauser gets stuck on a melody like a broken record. When he runs out of breath, the song transforms. Drums thud and cymbals crash as we’re suddenly swept up in a demonic carnival waltz.
Closer 1959 is a minor disappointment following such highs. The chord progression is unusual, and the bells and strings give it the feel of a lullaby. Guest singer Angel Deradoorian’s angelic vocals contrast nicely with Leithauser’s imprecise growl, and the percussion plays a subtle but important role. Unfortunately the melody is simply a bit boring.
Despite this, the album is a great success. It’s certainly one to come back to; even when you think you’ve pinned down the many elusive twists and turns the songs have to offer, the energy and skill with which they take them is always a delight.