Hamilton Leithauser, former frontman for The Walkmen, and his new musical partner Rostam Batmanglij (ex-Vampire Weekend) have achieved something increasingly rare in the indie rock landscape on their first fully collaborative album. (Rostam contributed to a few songs on Leithauser’s 2014 solo album, Black Hours.) The 10 tracks on I Had A Dream That You Were Mine use small signposts that point to music of the past without fully devolving into pure pastiche.
It’s a challenge for any artist really, as the easy route would to be give oneself over completely to aping the sound of an influence, something that both men should know well after starting off in their respective former day jobs mirroring various strains of post-punk. Here the baseline is the much broader idea of pop music, plain and simple. At least how pop music was created in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
That allows them to gild the edges of these songs with the “sha-dooby” backing vocals of doo-wop, some Dylanesque harmonica ramblin’, finger-picked acoustic guitar a la Leonard Cohen’s early work, and some U.K.-style folk rock. Again, those elements are only signifiers, a way for fellow music obsessives to latch on to a song before Leithauser and Rostam take you on a much different journey.
“Peaceful Morning” may begin with a Fairport Convention-like shuffle, but it zooms back to let a much broader landscape come into view. The song pulls apart gently as a result, with a simple piano melody and Leithauser’s truly great voice coming into focus before returning to its pastoral beginnings. “In a Black Out” spends much of its running time worshiping the sound of Songs From A Room before shifting into pure country.
What gets left out of their pop experimentation much of the time are simply hooks. The callbacks to other artists and eras are easy to recognize, but it’s often hard to remember which song they are attached to. Notable exceptions are the fantastic single “A 1000 Times,” which buries that title in your cerebellum through repetition and that three-note melody that Leithauser uses as he sings it. And the finger snaps and Moonglows vocals of “Rough Going” are easy to grasp onto.
The majority of I Had A Dream just doesn’t stick as deep, brushing past in a breeze of strained vocals and intricate arrangements. For this, Leithauser and Rostam might actually have the past to blame. Their own past, that is. The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend were both bands that left their songs humming in the mental jukebox for days on end. This may be a willful attempt to move beyond those trappings. They just leave few reasons to follow them on their collective path.