Thursday, October 08, 2015

New Americana Pt. 2: Hamilton Leithauser & Paul Maroon

Hamilton and I In "Deluxe Shipping" Moment

Robert Johnson, they say, met the devil at a crossroads and bargained his soul for a dramatic improvement in his guitar playing. While I doubt souls were exchanged, something certainly happened when Hamilton Leithauser spent time with Robin Pecknold during a joint tour by The Walkmen and Fleet Foxes. Since then, Leithauser has sung like a goddamned angel, with an ease and confidence that I would not have predicted while playing the early Walkmen records again and again. And on last year's debut solo album, Black Hours, he wrote a set of songs that fit his new Great American Songbook vocal swagger to a T. 

As I noted in my review of Black Hours, even though The Walkmen were on hiatus, their guitarist, Paul Maroon, had not left Leithauser's side, appearing on nearly every song on the album. So I was unsurprised when I got word that Hamilton's latest record, Dear God, would be co-credited to Maroon. I was surprised, however, at the opportunity to meet Hamilton as part of a very limited "deluxe shipping" offer through his Etsy store

It took a little time but it eventually happened, which is how I ended up talking to Hamilton on the sidewalk while his two kids waited patiently in their carseats. I didn't bring up Pecknold or demonic bargains, but I did note that he and Maroon seemed to have a fruitful musical bromance ("Like Bowie & Ronson," I said - he got a kick out of that!). I wondered why only the new album had both their names, even though Maroon was such an elemental part of Black Hours. It seemed to have a lot to do with the origin of the songs on that album, and also the fact that two of them were collaborations with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij.

Dear God, Leithauser told me, came out of the idea that it would just be him singing and Maroon on one instrument for each song. "Paul cheated a little and used a sampler on a couple of songs, but that was the basic idea." He also confirmed that this was a vinyl only release and that they would be playing these songs in concert - check your local listings

Naturally, due to the original conceit, Dear God is a much more intimate album than the big and bold Black Hours, a Cassavetes character study instead of a big Hollywood production. But it is an equally masterful example of singing and songwriting in the American vein. It is also partly Leithauser's meditation on where sees his place in that tradition, sprinkling four covers among its 13 tracks. Tom Paxton's Annie's Going To Sing Her Song is a hushed waltz in the original but Leithauser takes off on the version Bob Dylan recorded during the Self Portrait sessions, which was released on Another Self Portrait last year. Dylan put some new angles into the chorus, making it more of a hook. It's even more angular in Leithauser's version, which I believe to be definitive. 

While I'm not a fan of Will Oldham (or Palace Music, or Bonnie Prince Billy, or whatever he's calling himself these days), Leithauser pulls something out of his Trudy Dies that makes it more memorable than the original, playing his vocal dynamics off of Maroon's steady acoustic picking to give the song more shape. 

The Everly Brothers are one of those weird bands that are indubitably part of the bedrock of modern music but that I don't always like. Some of their songs are devastatingly good while others are grating and formulaic. The song Hamilton chose, Just One Time, is one of the latter but he and Maroon take all the obnoxious right out of it, playing it like a distant memory, with double-tracked vocals, harmonica, and a hypnotic, droning acoustic strum. It's still a slight song, without the simple profundity of, say, Buddy Holly, but it works well in Dear God's context - more on that later.

The album takes its name not from the XTC song - THAT would have been interesting - but rather from an early Patsy Cline song written by V.F. Stewart, known for the oft-covered Just Out Of Reach. Leithauser gives Cline's country waltz a bit of a barroom flavor, with Maroon's upright piano soldiering on bravely. It's a Sunday morning song transformed into a drinking song and it ends the album on a witty and rueful note.

The four songs covered could be seen as a short survey of some of what Leithauser and Maroon are attracted to in American song - waltz rhythms, melancholy lyrics, sing-along choruses - and their own tunes follow these threads to some interesting places. Proud Irene opens side one with piano filigrees setting the stage for a classic-sounding chord sequence. Hamilton enters with a hushed tone, singing close to the mike. The chorus is just the one word: "Irene," but you still want to join in. It's a clever bit of misdirection and a sign of their deep understanding of song form. 

Utica Avenue features Maroon on organ and a chorus of Leithausers singing funereally. In fact, my wife just requested it for her services when the unimaginable comes to pass - that's a tough playlist to write for, but these guys nailed it. Trudy Dies is next, followed by Light Sleeper, a melodic piano study by Maroon, and then Dad Is Drunk, with Maroon picking a circular riff on electric guitar. "There's wine on my breath, and wine in my pocket, and wine waiting for me, where I dropped it," Hamilton sings without a note of regret. Later, the singer claims to be "hopelessly optimistic," wishing to turn "black eyes white." There's a story here, but it's given to us in fragments. Paxton's song closes out the side, the perfect follow up to Dad Is Drunk: "Annie's gonna sing her song called take me back again." Maybe mom is drunk, too. 

Side two fades in on Two Dark Summers On Long Island, which would almost fit on The Velvet Underground's third album. Maroon's folky picking has a bleak tinge and he uses those cheating samplers to create a spooky atmosphere. Hamilton sings along with himself, some half-remembered tale hinted at by the title. Just One Time becomes just another memory, now, with How And Why? completing the thought: "You were always on my side," Hamilton sings over and over again, hinting at betrayal and loss. 

Your Swingin' Doors is even more mournful at first, but Hamilton raises the temperature to rage against the dying of the light. I Never Should Have Left Washington, DC is a reworking of Utrecht, a bonus track from Black Hours. It's just as brilliant a song in this stripped down version and sets the stage for Loyalty Road, a haunting guitar instrumental with a strong narrative drive. Then comes the redemptive request of Dear God to send us home. 

Dear God is a bravely bare setting for Leithauser to display his vocal talents and he is more than up to the task. With The Walkmen, and now beyond, he is carving a unique place in the American musical firmament and observing the process has been an involving and emotional experience. And like the best stories, I can't wait to see what happens next. 

In fact, he and Maroon have hinted at the next chapter with I Could Have Sworn, a five-song EP that includes Utica Avenue and four new songs, the latter with drummer Hugh McIntosh. Opener My Reward is an uptempo number with slashing chords and Leithauser pushing his voice ragged. New England Crows has Maroon giving us a hint of Johnny Marr but Leithauser is at his most intense, especially in a thrilling wordless section. Cry Out For Me is a pop explosion with a Chuck Berry song buried deep within. Immediately Alone is all shimmer and sigh with a gorgeous piano backdrop from Maroon bringing us full circle to where Dear God started.
You may also like:
New Americana Pt. 1: Phil Cook
Make Time For Black Hours
Best Of 12: Part Two
2011: The Year In Live (Part Two)

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