Thirty-five years ago, the debut single of an unknown band called The Culture Club was delivered to radio programmers in a brown paper wrapperlest the sight of a smartly coiffed drag queen offend the public.
Boy George and that song, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?," were widely embraced but that couldn't prepare listeners for the current tsunami of gay vocalists on the airwaves. With gay men trilling their hearts out in every shape and flavor ( for genderfluid we have Ezra Furman, for androgynous we have Perfume Genius, for arch we have Tyler Glenn and for weepy we have Sam Smith ), it comes as something of a shock to get Rostam Batmanglij ( better known as Rostam ) and his relatively recent full-length, Half Light ( on Nonesuch Records ), as additions to the mix.
Rostam did not exactly come out of nowhere, being that he was a founding member, producer and co-writer of platinum darlings Vampire Weekend; has a degree in musical composition from Columbia University; and a slew of collaborations to his credit ( Discovery, Ra Ra Riot, Kid Cudi, Charli XCX, Simon Le Bon, Carly Rae Jepsen and Hamilton Leithauser ). For all of his subtly, gently rumpled demeanor and the promise of brilliance, he's even managed something quite shocking: presented his queerness without elaboration.
Actors Ben Whishaw and Zachery Quinto have smartly used the same approach by coming out and then refusing to kiss and tell, focusing the spotlight on their work. Rostam, on the other hand, has not only offered a glimpse of his personality but managed to use it like a shell game. Half Light, if anything, is a low-key, rumbling delightan art-rock indie masterpiece without pretension and a whole lot of heart.
"Never Going to Catch Me" may be the most conventional song here, with its muted brittle percussion, sleek sheen and alluring melody, while "Don't Let it Get to You" hardly has a melody and largely works with Rostam's lazy cracked croon gliding over a bed of arid percussion and strings. "Rudy" reminded me of mid-period Paul Simon, with its conversational tone, until Rostam started playing with the song's structure giving it an improvisational and unexpected finish. As if all of that weren't enough, the single "Bike Dream"which, at first, sounds like one long run on sentencedovetails into a shimmering bliss out of a song. It's wordy, sweet, uncynical and addictive, to a fault.
In front of a packed room for a sold out show at Lincoln Hall on Feb. 10, Rostam managed the feat of not only reproducing and elaborating on High Light, but charming the bejesus out of his audience. If anything, he looks like a cuddly college student ( it was no wonder that there was a group of seasoned bears front-row center ); though he exuded shyness, that didn't stop him from cracking jokes while astounding the room. Fronting a four-piece string section and a lone percussionist ( Rostam picked up his guitar on occasion ) "Never Going to Catch Me" and "Bike Dream" had a shimmering elegance that made them otherworldly. "Rudy" and "It's Not My Fault," a dip into the Discovery discography, came with a degree of brittle aggression that hinted at what the future could suggest.
The rumor was that one of the reasons that Rostam left Vampire Weekend was that he preferred being a studio mouse over touring. At the mid-point of his set it was clear that he was having a problem hiding his smile, debunking that rumor.
Heads up: In case you missed the act last year, queer country pioneers Lavender Country will hit The Hideout for a show on April 26.