When alt-rock stops working for them, veterans of the genre usually look to the past. There’s the retro futurism of 1970s-rooted electronica, or even mustier options such as lounge ballads, torch songs and rockabilly.
It’s no surprise that Hamilton Leithauser, who performed Sunday evening at the not-eponymous Hamilton, looked to pre-synth styles. The musician’s longtime band, the probably defunct Walkmen, was trending in that direction on its less punky later albums.
Leithauser’s 50-minute set had a few built-in disadvantages. The singer-guitarist performed songs only from his new solo debut, “Black Hours,” forgoing better-known Walkmen material. Also, he was backed by just five musicians, who weren’t equipped to reproduce the full sound of his more grandly arranged new tunes.
But the Brooklyn-based Leithauser could hardly have faced a friendlier crowd. He grew up here, and was backed by what he called “my all Washington, D.C.-native band,” including onetime members of the Walkmen, French Kicks and Jonathan Fire*Eater.
Leithauser has said that “Black Hours” was initially conceived as a Frank Sinatra homage, before co-producer Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend, and another D.C. native) pushed it toward a more rock-oriented direction. But as a singer Leithauser is not a smoothie — there’s often a burr in his voice — and he sometimes pushes his baritone much higher.
Sunday’s set opened with “I Retired,” a chugging country-rocker in which the musician went straight for the falsetto. The only number that emphasized his crooner ambitions was the Tindersticks-like “5 A.M.,” during which he held a note long enough to draw applause from fans of athletic vocalese.
Instrumentally, the principal non-rock timbre was provided by a marimba, interjected occasionally by guitarist Paul Maroon. Since Maroon’s guitar sound tends to be chiming, the marimba didn’t dramatically expand the quintet’s range, although it did accentuate “The Silent Orchestra’s” Caribbean-style lilt. Pianist Nick Stumpf (Leithauser’s brother-in-law) also played multiple instruments, adding percussion to some tunes and becoming the group’s third guitarist for “The Smallest Splinter.”
That brooding song, like the jauntier “I Retired,” seems to be about someone who’s defeated or retreating. Yet despite the melancholy lyrics, Leithauser’s recent material doesn’t feel confessional.
He went directly from “I’ll Never Love Again,” with spouse Anna Stumpf on backing vocals, to “In Our Time (I’ll Always Love You)” — a segue he allowed was “a little awkward.” In fact, the transition exemplified Leithauser’s current project, which is a bit clinical. His “Black Hours” songs are solidly crafted, yet neither distinctive enough to compete with their models nor sufficiently personal to prevail on sheer emotion.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.