PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Hamilton Leithauser: Black Hours

The Walkmen's bandleader becomes big-band bandleader.

Hamilton Leithauser

Black Hours

Label: Ribbon
US Release Date: 2014-06-03
UK Release Date: 2014-06-02

Albums like Black Hours stump me -- do I recommend them or not? It's not strictly an issue of singles in a post-album musical landscape (When was the golden age of the album? Weren't they always stripped for parts when they weren't actively prefabricated?), though that discussion is a relevant tangent. Hamilton Leithauser's debut solo album since The Walkmen announced an indefinite hiatus last year gets at a more complex problem of how we can listen to music.

I'll begin unambiguously: I enjoy Black Hours, and I join the chorus of critics singling out Rostam Batmanglij for producing -- somewhat literally -- the finest cut here, which I'll get to. My first listen was deeply apprehensive. The Walkmen, with Spoon, Wussy, and Sleater-Kinney, were among the 2000's finest rock outfits -- they also had the best outfits. But I always gritted through their really slow ones, generously called "torch songs", but when Heaven recast their soporific impulses as actual lullabies, I thought it self-awareness rather than maturation. The handsome, restrained cover of Black Hours channels the unadulterated crooner that previously only inflected Leithauser's delivery, and I was worried that without the exuberant, metronomic C86 chirrup drawing the sketch that Leithauser colored, our singer would, as it were, walk onto a shiny black stage with shiny black loafers and sit with a subtle, sophisticated emotionality on a stool placed just off center.

"5 AM" confirmed my fears, every part the indolent, Duke Silver-y stylings I feared. Then the pizzicatos of "The Silent Orchestra" warmed me to the album's intentions and possibilities.

And then the third track "Alexandra" flounces in with a stomp impatient not just with the rhythmic languor of the first two cuts but impatient also with my doubt. Hooked by androgynous backup singers and the kind of piano figure for which virtuosos insult pop's audience and by which pop's audience is too enthused to care, the two-and-a-half minutes splinter with a jubilation that canny production implies cannot be contained by digital recording methods. If Modern Vampires of the City weren't, this would be Rostam Batmanglij's masterwork -- down to his harmonica jaunt.

In fact, the rest of the album never really recovers from this one. Mostly this is a result of very good music getting too ambitious for its own purposes. "11 O'Clock Friday Night", which has the misfortune to follow "Alexandra", avails itself well thanks to clicking percussion and a gorgeously overdriven guitar -- not thanks to the lyrics about a taciturn, presumably female, figure leaving Leithauser's lovelorn narrator to his natural state. The music, including Leithauser in his purely sonic capacities, is often just on the edge of sustaining the Greatest Generation lyrical content, but only when a song whips by with "Alexandra"'s speed am I able to overlook the "Self Pity" the verbal meaning too often takes as a telos beyond topos. But even with Leithauser's (or his characters') annoying chauvinism, a by-product of adopting midcentury tropes, "11 O'Clock Friday Night" really is wonderful. Meanwhile, "I Don't Need Anyone" swings and shuffles with a guitar that sounds like a night rain, and "Self Pity" hybridizes Prince, Mac DeMarco, and Frank Sinatra into a torch song good enough for any of them -- okay, maybe not Prince.

This is a question about knowledge production. The album is grand and gorgeous, and for me, that’s enough. But when do you start pushing an album on your friends? I trust my musically involved social circle to make it past the bummer opener, and if they sit through "Alexandra", maybe even un-self-consciously bouncing along to it, the rest of the songs sustain remarkable beauty. What, then, stops my tongue? The same reason I don't recommend Ravel or Brahms to my friends. Beauty is as great as anything to fill a life with, but there is no lack of beautiful music -- people who make such a claim aren't looking hard enough (which means not at all), or they've given up on aural pleasure. Their choice, but I'm not among them, and if you're reading this, you're probably not either. That said, if you like Ravel, dig this. If Ravel feels like an intellectual indulgence, avoid it. Or, hey, allow yourself the indulgence. Listen to Black Hours and skip dessert.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.