(Cornelius Chapel Records)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
While some may associate that adjective with arrogance, the word is best defined as exuding confidence in your profession. Leon lll has swagger.
Comprising Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent, two multi-instrumentalists/songwriters from veteran Americana act Wrinkle Neck Mules, along with 14 journeymen guest musicians and singers, many from Nashville, the oddly named Leon lll (pronounced Leon the third) creates tough, occasionally psychedelic, darker edged alt-roots rock. Hints of country appear, but there’s a clear distinction between this music and that of WNM. Leon lll’s bio name checks both the Grateful Dead and Wilco and while there are strains of both in the band’s sound, there’s also a creepy, sometimes unsettling quality about the songs on the duo’s debut. There are also intimate, achingly pretty moments such as the sweet pedal steel snaking its way through “Faded Mountain” and the mysterious “From these Heights,” the latter a near epic at just under five minutes enhanced by honeyed backing vocals from Jordan Caress, a trio of angelic choir singers and a tough, bluesy guitar solo.
Nothing is rushed on this self-titled debut. The songs move at a deliberate, unhurried pace, enhanced by layered six-strings, drums and sometimes, as on “The Strongest Medicine,” psychedelically drenched lead guitar. Hints of R.E.M., Neil Young and the Velvet Underground at their dreamiest are also influences in Leon lll’s fluid, viscous approach. The VU connection is reinforced by a version of Lou Reed’s “Jesus,” the disc’s lone cover and, with just subtle percussion, sparse acoustic and electric guitar and Caress’ supporting vocals, its most intimate moment.
Stepanian’s husky, emotional vocals fall somewhere between those of Michael Stipe, Jay Farrar and Eddie Vedder. They perfectly position songs like “Alberta,” whose lyrics “A precious few stars are out, let’s not waste it on this/ detaining me for questioning as if I’m a person of interest,” are often unclear. Regardless, there’s a sense of drama and intensity throughout these 10 tracks that feels weighty, intentional and committed. Occasional strings (cello and violin) on tunes such as “The Line” add to the track’s already heavy qualities.
This isn’t background music. The album is a statement crafted for thoughtful, prolonged listening, best with headphones to fully absorb the overdubs, vocal inflections, instrumental intricacies and precise production by Stepanian, Brent and Mark Nevers. It exudes poetic and musical assurance along with a boldness that reveals more after each spin. And yes, it swaggers … in all the best ways.