New York/Philadelphia band The Walkmen etched a pretty sentimental place in pop culture when their song The Love You Love wrapped up the nine-year run of the beloved CBS show How I Met Your Mother. In late 2013, they went on what they describe as an “extreme hiatus” so with “no future plans whatsoever”, it seems like there’s no better time for its members, chiefly bassist Peter Bauer and the subject of this review to embark on some long awaited, but we’re told still amicable solo careers. Indeed the name Hamilton Leithauser proves to be more than a comically German nautical navigator, as is evidenced on his debut Black Hours that encompasses a unique blend of dark cabaret, Vegas-level bombast and uniquely American power-pop.
Opening with the powerfully melancholy 5 A.M., from the very beginning Black Hours serves as a framing device for the gravitas Leithauser’s world-weary howl. It’s incredibly minimalistic with post-apocalyptic reverbs sculpting a gorgeously dark aesthetic to match the record’s monochromatic artwork. Things pick up a little with the pizzicato strings of The Silent Orchestra and the first tentative appearance from one of Black Hours’ key collaborators – Amber Coffman from Brooklyn indie sweethearts Dirty Projectors. There’s a real ‘60s vibe to it that’s captured with reverent attention to detail before lead single Alexandra rolls on through like a freight train with its stomp/clap singalong chorus providing the first bit of colourful respite on the album.
The xylophone and percussion free-for-all which signals the start of second single 11.00 Friday Night, sounds like it could only be the handiwork of guest star number two – Rostam Batmanglij of Afrobeat-influenced New Yorkers Vampire Weekend. With all this US-East-Coast star-power in play, it’s admirable that the result still has a wryness that was best captured at the sadder end of the Britpop spectrum by bands like Super Furry Animals or Blur’s late recording career output in the late ‘90s. After another twilight cabaret piano and string outing in St. Mary’s County and nearly a minute of wind-tunnel noise, Self Pity hits with all the bleakness its title suggests. It washes over you and like a lot of Black Hours, plays like it was created for that precious window of time between a long, aimless night and the cold, harsh light of morning.
The wonderfully lazy country of I Retired shows the extent of Leithauser’s impressive vocal range with some histrionic highs straight out of the gate and impressive layering as the song unravels piece by piece at the end. The opulent but still tidy indie-rock of I Don’t Need Anyone is the next logical step for an artist who grew cut his teeth in the mid-‘oughties slew of bands who rediscovered the reverb knob on their amps and Amber Coffman steps into the limelight on penultimate track Bless Your Heart for a divine to-and-fro with Hamilton to great effect.
Wrapping up with the lackadaisical downstrokes of The Smallest Splinter, which grow steadily from a dingy Brooklyn warehouse vibe into a swooning, cinematic string section, Black Hours is lulled into a beautiful close. Overall, for his debut solo outing, Hamilton Leithauser has stepped a little left of the image he projected in The Walkmen and with the help of a couple of indie-credible friends, has made a pretty impressively bleak record which somehow distinguishes him from his own past and shows some impressive promise for the future.