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Hamilton Leithauser is the Marty Balin of the hip underground rock world — an under-appreciated talent capable of filling any song or rendition with spirit and vigor. A sweet-hearted choirboy and gravel-voiced vagabond rolled into one. A drowsy-sounding crooner without a care.
Leithauser and his bandmates — bassist/organist Walter Martin, keyboardist Peter Bauer, drummer Matt Barrick, and guitarist/pianist Paul Maroon — are currently touring the States and the U.K. behind a new collection called A Hundred Miles Off (Record Collection), a grand follow-up to follow-up to 2004's college radio favorite Bows + Arrows.
The group officially formed in 2000 when Leithauser and Bauer — both D.C. natives, formerly of The Recoys — hooked up with Leithauser's first cousin, Martin, Barrick, and Maroon — all formerly of N.Y.C. indie band Jonathan Fire*Eater. They eventually recorded a collection in a New York studio and released it in 2002 under the album name Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone (Star Time).
Produced by the band, A Hundred Miles Off was recorded at Inner Ear studio in Arlington, Vir. with longtime pal and studio engineer Don Zientera (Bad Brains, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses) at the helm. The bandmates swapped instruments during pre-production at their own Marcata Studio facility in Harlem — which doubles as a cavernous rehearsal space and a 24-track recording studio — before heading to Inner Ear.
"A lot of stuff just didn't sound new to us," says Leithauser in a recent press announcement. "It takes you a while to get back into the groove of writing songs. You keep trying until it sounds new. Then you've finally got 12 songs you like, and that's your record."
The echo-y, empty theatre sound of the basic tracks only enhance the breeziness of the tunes — scratchy and noisy, but carefully arranged and executed. Jangly guitars reverberate. Vintage drum heads, oversized tambourines, and antique cymbals ring out. Organs and electric pianos oscillate. Full of wonder and soul, Leithauser's sly, Dylan-esque voice is at the forefront — equal parts rasp, howl, and preacher-speak. It's a clangy but elegant effort, for sure.
"Most of the stuff we've done is very live and straight, without effects or anything, and Don's great at that," says Martin. "Plus, we could stay at our parent's houses while we were there."
"I think this record is great," Leithauser recently told Pop Matters. "We're moving forward. All of these new songs are really fun to play. We're just trying to play them and make them sound good for you rather than spazz out. To sell a million records ... lot of money ... it would be nice. We've toured with a lot of bands that have made a lot of money. And they're definitely running a different race. They're living a different lifestyle. But it requires a big radio single. That's the only way you can sell a million records, and I don't think we have a radio hit on this record."