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Leon III's debut album begins with a Grateful Dead-esque loopy guitar intro and then the heavy twang of a familiar voice. The band's background info describes them as a psychedelic Americana group, and based on the opening seconds, you'd have to say that's about right.
The voice you recognize is that of Andy Stepanian, the head ass of the Wrinkle Neck Mules, a long under-appreciated alt-country outfit from Virginia. Mason Brent of the Mules is on guitar. Leon III is a bringing together of this duo's rustic aesthetic with the smoother sounds of acts like Wilco and the experimentation of jam and indie rock. While that may sound like an odd mixture, it's not a far cry from a lot of the alt-country I listened to in the early 2000s.
The band is rounded out by drummer Brian Kotzur of Silver Jews, pianist Tony Crow, singer Jordan Caress, and guitarist Chris Scruggs - Scruggs as in the grandson of Earl - this is a top notch collaboration of musicians.
So, I've listed the influences and ingredients, but what does Leon III sound like? Downtrodden folk rock might be the best descriptive. Stepanian's gruff vocals combined with the softer textures laid down behind him is an intoxicating presentation. For me, the familiarity with Wrinkle Neck Mules' jubilance made it an even more disconcerting experience at first. It's not a challenging listen, but it's a challenge to absorb this album. The reward is worth repeated listens.
The album is meant to be digested as a whole, but there are a few standout tracks for me. "Faded Mountain" is driven by bass and drums, punctuated by piano and steel guitar. It's one of the quieter moments on Leon III, but the simplicity of the sounds and the poetry of the lyrics make it one of the more poignant.
"Alberta" is the heart of this record. It's a slow build of a song about realizing you'll never have it all. The progression of this track will raise the hairs on your arms - horns push the horizon higher and Stepanian's yearning grows then fades. It's an emotional trip.
"Between the Saddle and the Ground" talks about the swiftness in which salvation can be found, even in the fleeting moments. It's constructed around a William Camden quote referred to on the Dead's "China Doll." The tune is reverential to the Dead, but the sound is pure epic Americana.
Leon III isn't an easy album to love, but once you've let it seep in for a few listens, it won't leave your mind or soul. This is emotional, intelligent, artful music in an era of throwaway culture. If you dig Wrinkle Neck Mules, Silver Jews, Wilco, or any act in between, it's well worth your investment to give this record a few spins.