Artist: Hamilton Leithauser
Title: Black Hours album
Label: Ribbon / Domino
Release Date: 2 June 2014
Formats: LTD Vinyl / Digital / CD
Cat Number: RBN035
Praise for Black Hours
‘Excellent solo LP’ 4/5 Q
‘Leithauser’s voice is that of a passionate, but reasonable man; his songs projecting an intelligent, emotional veracity’ 8/10 Uncut
‘You can bet your hat he won’t be overlooked this time’ 4/5 Mojo
‘An album as big in heart as it is in ideas’ 4/5 DIY
‘Effortless and timeless’ 4/5 The Sun
‘8/10’ Loud & Quiet
Hamilton Leithauser’s reputation precedes him. As the magnetic frontman of The Walkmen, Leithauser’s voice proved equally at ease tearing apart a song with visceral anger or soaring to spine-tingling highs with tender crooning. But on his debut solo album, Leithauser puts a torch to the past, and emerges as an ambitious, risk-taking artist, who pulls off a magnificent reinvention.
Black Hours captures the ephemeral magic of the right people, in the right place, at the right time. The people? Paul Maroon (The Walkmen), Leithauser’s long time songwriting partner. Richard Swift. Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend). Morgan Henderson (Fleet Foxes). Amber Coffman (Dirty Projectors).
The place? Vox Studios, Los Angeles, formerly known as Electro-Vox, established in 1936 and whose walls could tell a thousand-and-one stories of recording everyone from Bing Crosby to Nat King Cole and Charlie Parker, and in recent times, with its peerless array of top-of-the-line vintage gear and untouched interior, has become the go-to studio for the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend and Norah Jones.
And the right time? ‘5AM’, which happens to be the staggering album opener, that kicked off this entire project. ‘5AM’ is a tower of song, spare and subtle with shivering strings, and the ultimate showcase for Leithauser’s stirring voice that nods towards Scott Walker.
When Leithauser received this slow, minor key “rambling, warbling 8-track of piano” from Maroon working at home in New Orleans, it immediately clicked.
“I’d been listening to The September of My Years, and In the Wee Small Hours by Sinatra, and I realised this chord progression was actually quite dramatic,” Leithauser says. “It seemed like it could maintain its odd structure, but get enormous with singing and instrumental dynamics. I have a very loud and booming voice,” he acknowledges, “and it was fun to put it unapologetically in front of everything. I just went for it.”
As the song ideas began to flow back and forth between Maroon and Leithauser, Rostam Batmanglij entered the picture. At that point a mere acquaintance from the Brooklyn scene, Leithauser was astonished to find himself with a brand new songwriting foil.
“We came up with ‘I Retired’ on the spot,” he says of the loose, barstool blues shuffle, topped with a rollicking vocal that ends in a swirling doo-wop harmony. “Just tried to kick the doors down. Rostam works at about 1000mph at all times. I was just strumming guitar, and he started working his recording equipment and laptop like a madman and before I knew it we had a song going. That backing vocal at the end is one of my fonder memories… just the whole gang in LA towards the end of the week, late at night when everything was going well… all of us in that classic minimalist Vox room standing around a U47 mic. It sounds very John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album to me.”
‘Alexandra’ was another spontaneous creation “on the spot from absolute scratch, finished-song in a matter of hours” between Batmanglij and Leithauser, and one that revels in a hootenanny rush of stomping energy complete with handclaps, harmonica and clattering backbeat.
With disparate elements in need of some solid garage jamming time, the players decamped to Washington DC, “and practiced in my parents’ garage. It was like nothing had changed in literally 20 years,” Leithauser laughs. There they recruited drummer, high school buddy and brother-in-law Hugh McIntosh. Plus Morgan Henderson. “We’d toured with Fleet Foxes and really hit it off with all of them. Morgan is the most natural and accomplished musician I’ve ever seen. Calling him was like shooting for the stars, but he agreed, and we just knew it would work out with this line up.”
Henderson’s musicality found a new expression in these sessions, with the sinewy Marimba groove on ’11 O’ Clock Friday Night’ opening up a whole new sound.
“Morgan had literally never played a Marimba before the day he recorded this. He was sort of just messing around, and he sounded so good that we started replacing guitar lines with it, and it became integral to the record’s sound.”
The ten days of recording at Vox Studios, Leithauser says were “the best, most productive recording experience of my life.” When drummer McIntosh had to bow out for the birth of his daughter, Richard Swift got the shoulder tap to step in. “The group instantly locked. Morgan and Richard hadn’t ever met each other before, but they absolutely hit it off. I had expected to just lay down the basic tracks in the time we had allotted, but it was sounding so surprisingly good, by the fourth day I was already singing onto everything, and we were calling in all the horn players.” Amber Coffman added her backing vocals over five songs. Strings were added a few weeks later in St. Ann & The Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights, and Leithauser flew to London to mix with Craig Silvey.
Black Hours was whittled down from a total of seventeen songs recorded to a tight ten – the five-songs-to-a side, forty-minute-running-time structure of the old-fashioned LP. “I ended up not including songs that I absolutely loved because I figured the most important thing was to create a concise, cohesive whole,” says Leithauser.
The songs include an idiosyncratic singer/songwriter piano ballad like ‘St. Mary’s County’ with echoes of Randy Newman in the piano, and Harry Nilsson in the vocals – “I sang it through an old RCA 44 (the ‘Elvis’ mic), and it just came together in minutes and felt so much better than I had anticipated. The vocals are one take.” ‘Self Pity’, shot through with Maroon’s golden sunset guitar playing and an unfurling rhythm that hooks you in. To contrast, there’s ‘I Don’t Need Anyone’, with the Marimba doubling the guitar line and a great thumping beat, and ‘The Silent Orchestra’ taking its cues from big band and swing, but laced with a rock ‘n’ roll groove, the cool running’s of the Marimba lines and an acapella vocal showcase. “I thought this song actually was a good culmination of all the vibes established on the record,” Leithauser says. Surely something shared on the second half of arguable album highlight ‘Bless Your Heart’ with its swelling and urgent vocal refrain.
He may have “retired” from his fight, but this is clearly nothing to be taken too literally, as Hamilton Leithauser has just made one of 2014’s finest albums.