Hamilton Leithauser: ‘Black Hours’ Album Review

Ribbon Music
Ribbon Music

For over a decade the Walkmen buried us in sound as front man, Hamilton Leithauser, belted out honest, relatable lyrics. I’d like to gush about them like a love-struck teenage boy talking about his boo, but I won’t. Maybe another day, in another post, I’ll reminisce about their classic albums Bows + Arrows, You & Me and Lisbon, but not today. Today we’re moving forward. As of right now, the Walkmen are defunct and three of the five members have released solo projects: Peter Bauer’s Liberation!, Walter Martin’s charming children’s album We’re All Young Together and Liethauser’s Black Hours. Hamilton’s solo album was released last June and it’s an honest attempt at a post-Walkmen beginning—and for the most part it is. It’s moody, vibrant, dark and fun. It features an eclectic, talented cast of collaborators and is filled with ten tracks of familiarity and newness.  It moves fast, it goes slow, and simply put, it’s a fun ride.

According to Hamilton, when he started working on Black Hours, his mindset was influenced by Frank Sinatra right down to the title, Black Hours (see: Wee Small Hours)—but not the cloud nine “World On a String” Sinatra. Rather the forlorn Frank; the guy who cast himself as a low-luck fella in need of some love and a stiff drink. When you listen to the opening track, “5 AM” you’ll hear the sound of a guy in a smoky lounge, under a dim spotlight, baring his soul. That sound/feeling appears throughout the album and though it’s not Sinatra, it’s Hamilton; the vocals are at the forefront, and it’s well done. The first track on a debut solo album is important and “5 AM” leads the way to somewhere new—a place distant from the rollicking rock and roll of yesteryear. That sound, however, doesn’t prevail through the entirety of Black Hours.

Leithauser had Sinatra in mind until he started working with the multi-talented Vampire Weekender, Rostam Batmanglij. The two Washington DC natives got to work and created the album’s first single—the full speed ahead, “Alexandra.” The song, track three on the album, takes a quick turn from the opening tracks into a land filled with pulsing drums, a rolling bass line, harmonica and a plunktastic piano. It’s a real kick in the head. From that point the album continues it’s 10 track rollercoaster with “11 O’Clock Friday Night.” Another fun pop song that avoids sounding like anything Hamilton has done. Note: there were five music videos made for the album (six if you count a video made by MPLS.TV for “The Smallest Splinter”).

Track five takes us to a place from Hamilton’s youth, “St. Mary’s County.” Like “5 AM,” it’s dialed down to strings, piano and crystal clear vocals. “Self Pity” follows and might be the most forgettable song on the album. The seventh song, “I Retired,” is the second of two tracks co-written and produced by Batmanglij. It’s a slow paced yet passionate doo-wop featuring well-placed backing vocals from Rostam—a rarity in Hamilton’s work (exception: Pussy Cats’ Starring The Walkmen—the John Lennon/Harry Nillsson album they covered in ’06). In an interview, Hamilton said the song is symbolic of the two DC natives retiring from their hometown and it’s one of my favorites on the album. Following “I Retired,” he goes into perhaps the most Walkmen sounding song on the album, “I Don’t Need Anyone.” It’s another pop party with a music video to back it up—Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon directed the video, which features Hamilton enjoying a fictional day of swimming, chugging beer and flying with real-life soundman Christopher Colbert. The album ends beautifully with “Bless Your Heart” and “The Smallest Splinter.”

I’ve heard friends say that Black Hours is, for the most part, another Walkmen album, but it’s not. Hamilton employed a variety of friends to help make sure it wasn’t. Along with Rostam, he worked with Richard Swift from the Shins, Morgan Henderson from Fleet Foxes, and Amber Coffman from Dirty Projectors. It’s more robust, less predictable, and more vocally forward than his previous work. It’s clear that this is an album done by the frontman, not his band. Yet, if you’re a Walkmen fan and jonesing for something in the same vain, you will like Black Hours. Paul Maroon provided familiar guitar licks on a few tracks and, let’s face it, since Hamilton Leithauser’s voice is uniquely his own, it’ll always (unless he pulls a Tom Waits and gets real gritty) be connected to the sound of his old band.

Hamilton is heading back out on tour in a few days. He’ll be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the 15th before heading to Chicago, St. Paul, Minnesota and Madison, Wisconsin to play Frozen Fest on the 18th.