When Rostam Batmanglij announced his departure from indie staple Vampire Weekend, the community lamented. Many fans still do, but Rostam’s recent work with Hamilton Leithauser (former vocalist for The Walkmen) should put to rest any doubts about his future involvement in music and the quality of his work separate from Vampire Weekend. Now, with Leithauser, Rostam’s work sounds more traditional, inspired by oldies while remaining distinctly baroque in nature. On I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, the duo’s debut, plainly but carefully arranged piano, (slide) guitar, bass, exuberant percussion and the occasional organ provide a backdrop for Hamilton’s intrinsically emotive rasp.
Although the album recalls the work of American songwriters of old — Dylan and Cohen, especially — Hamilton and Rostam seem focused on not simply rehashing what has already been done so many times before. “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up),” with it’s unashamed “sha-doobie sha-doo-wop” backing, is perhaps the most immediate indication of the duo’s deeply unironic love for the gaudier music of North America’s past. “You Ain’t That Young Kid” echoes this love, with a classic harmonica-and-piano opening, but exemplifies Hamilton and Rostam’s more modern approach. The song starts on harmonica, but transitions to a swinging slide guitar, then changes pace completely with a rolling, bass-driven melody and closes shortly after a brief harpsichord line, evidencing the pair’s musical comfort with the genre and its associated conventions.
As tends to be the trend with albums whose instrumentation invokes nostalgia, the lyrics follow suit. Focusing primarily on past relationships and wishes for what could have been, could be or might one day be, Hamilton’s vocals are appropriately melancholic. They provide a good balance for their relatively jubilant backing while skillfully avoiding the wallowing feeling often associated with nostalgia.
On “The Morning Stars” — a rambling, percussive ode to a past lover — Hamilton is the metaphorical ghost of his relationship, wondering who could possibly have replaced him. It is followed by “1959,” in which Hamilton sings of his mistakes in a relationship, reminiscing on inside jokes and reflecting on mortality, while coming to terms with his baser tendencies. The track also features Angel Deradoorian (formerly of Dirty Projectors), the sole guest appearance on the album.
Emotionally charged standout “The Bride’s Dad” is the brief narrative of a deadbeat, unkempt father singing at his daughter’s wedding. Nostalgia remains the dominating tone, but in a more playful sense than a sorrowful one here. The wedding guests are a mix of amused and uncomfortable as he’s escorted, crying, from the stage, but all he cares is that “(he) caught (his daughter) smile / From the corner of (his) eye.”
Songs like leading single “A 1000 Times” and “In a Black Out” will draw listeners in with their straightforward poppiness and anthemic qualities, but the appeal of these two decreases with time. In “A 1000 Times,” a man wanders the streets of the city — New York? — and finds himself accidentally in front of an old lover’s house that has now been boarded up. The song is a rousing call, a passionate cry into the dark, but teeters on the edge of being repetitive. Meanwhile, “In a Black Out,” which is more or less the paragon of accessibility in a song — it was recently featured in a television ad for Apple, if that helps give you an idea —simply sticks out stylistically from the rest of the album. It sounds more like it was written to serve as proof that the duo knows how to craft an immediate earworm, while they would, on the whole, really rather not.
When all’s said and done, Hamilton and Rostam make a formidable pair. Hamilton’s voice — breaking, bending and soaring over Rostam’s straightforward piano — ensures that the sometimes cliché tropes employed still come across as genuine. The pair cover an impressive amount of ground, sonically speaking, and it is not difficult to imagine nearly any song on the album faring well as a single.
At the very least, I Had A Dream is an exciting new step for both Hamilton and Rostam, and one that should reassure fans of both artists’s previous and solo work. The album functions well as an anchor for the duo, a starting point that recalls both Vampire Weekend and The Walkmen while also establishing this new project and wiping clean the slate of stylistic expectations.