Friday, May 17, 2013

Leadfinger's "No Room At the Inn"

Between 1999 and 2002, I was a frequent and regular contributor to the I-94 Bar, the Sydney-based e-zine whose webmaster, the Barman, pulled my coat to heaps of mighty Rock Action that made me imagine the Antipodes as a kind of alternate universe America, where all the Detroit and garage noise I took shit for liking when I was a snotnose working in the hipi record store was actually popular and influential.

Among my favorite practitioners of that style was Brother Brick, a band I once interviewed for the Bar, fronted by singer-guitarist Stewart Cunningham. Stew had an impressive resume, having apprenticed in the Proton Energy Pills and Asteroid B-612, and played in Challenger 7 and the Yes-Men concurrently with the Brick. (Speaking of which, you can cop Brother Brick's comprehensive Stranded In the '90s 2CD comp digitally via Amazon.)

The Barman recently hooked me up with some music by Stew's current band, Leadfinger (a nickname stemming from a childhood BB gun accident), including their 2011 I Belong To the Band EP (available digitally via the band's store or iTunes) and their brand new full-length, No Room At the Inn (available on CD or sweet, sweet vinyl via the estimable Aussie indie Citadel Records). He's got a lot of new tricks in his trick bag, and I was most pleasantly surprised to hear what he's been up to.

I Belong To the Band contains three originals and three covers that map out the territory Leadfinger inhabits. "What Did You See In Me?" opens the proceedings with Stones-y swagger before the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait" -- a song that, to these feedback-scorched ears, shall ever belong to Fort Worth's late, lamented cowpunk no-'counts Woodeye -- sets the stage for acoustic original "December Runaway," which jangles like the 'Mats' "Color Me Impressed" but also has an American roots flavor. (There's mandolin, but not in a Mumford & Sons way, thank Ceiling Cat.)

Rory Gallagher's "Tattoo'd Lady" tips its hat to the Irish blues-rock avatar without being slavishly imitative. Stew sees a parallel between Gallagher and Fred "Sonic" Smith, a connection I wouldn't have made, but which makes sense if one considers both men's penchant for relentless forward motion, minor keys, and idiosyncratic note choices and phrasing in their solos. "Leadfinger Theme" is all pummeling Detroit high energy, with an opening riff that shares a bloodline with the one in Wayne Kramer's "Sharkskin Suit." The title track's a nice surprise -- a deftly fingerpicked and soulfully sung rendering of a tune by acoustic ragtime bluesman Reverend Gary Davis.

No Room At the Inn puts it all together: a seamless and original synthesis of rock drive, pop sensibility, and roots flavor, built on a solid foundation of ace songcraft, impassioned singing, and expressive playing. On opener "You're So Strange," the introductory vocal, accompanied by shimmering tremeloed chords, recalls the work of Eric "Roscoe" Ambel of Roscoe's Gang/Yayhoos fame. The song's a mid-tempo rocker with an irresistible chorus, propelled by handclaps and adorned with female backing vocals. "It's Much Better" careens along like an out-of-control freight train, highlighted by a hook-laden guitar line. Stew sings it in an ebullient yelp.

"Gimme the Future" mixes ethereal backing voices with layers of ringing guitars, while "Cruel City" is another fervent rocker, recalling Brother Brick, but more melodic. "The Lonely Road," with its flatpicked intro, invokes the spirits of Gaelic ancestors in the same way as some of Rory Gallagher's music does. In a just universe, the jangle-rocker "The Wandering Man" would be a transcontinental hit. "Pretty Thing" isn't an homage to the '60s Brit despoilers like you might expect; rather, it's perfect pop worthy of Freedy Johnston, Brendan Benson, or Dom Mariani.

"The Other Ones" borrows the intro from the MC5's anthem of post-'60s disillusion, "Over and Over," then heads off in a whole 'nother direction, transforming into a minor-key guitar tour de force worthy of Neil Young when he steers his LincVolt for the ditch -- except Stew's got a lot more vocal power than ol' Shakey can muster. "Segue Three" is a cinematic snippet of modal guitar noodling, leading into the title track, a banjo-driven nod to the post-Uncle Tupelo Y'allternative nation, with a heart-tugging vocal performance from Stew. Closer "Don't Think Twice" juxtaposes crunchy six-string and chiming 12-string guitars, and is emblematic of the whole album's strengths. Rather than steamrollering you the way Brother Brick would have, it invites you in and then beguiles you to into staying.


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