Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Michael Leon Veteran drummer masterminds a fuzzed-out Power Pop debut!


A renowned drummer for more than 22 years, Michael Leon (also known by his peers as "Mikey D") was a founding member of Birmingham, AL's 13Ghosts, and has lent his talents to the likes of Regia, Shame Idols, and Gleeson (Austin, TX) among many others. He is a multi-instrumentalist who has always tried to absorb as many different styles of music as one could possess and is constantly experimenting and writing in the studio. His eponymously-titled solo debut – a joyous and fuzzy Power Pop romp – is now available wherever digital music is sold or streamed.

“I had been wanting to make a record for a while,” Michael Leon says of the impetus behind his debut album, Michael Leon. “Once I had my home studio set up, I just started going through songs I had written and tracking them out.” A sought-after drummer, Leon was ready to create a more personal statement. He used the relaxed timeframe of a home-based project to develop and complete various musical ideas. “Some were riffs I had laying around that I finished during the recording process, and others were written on the spot.” He also chose to play nearly all the parts himself, a decision which complicated things. “I wish I had a time lapse video of when I was recording. I would be setting up mics, setting levels, then running across the room to play the tracks. It was pretty crazy but fun too.”

Joining him are album co-mixer Chris “Frenchie” Smith (of Austin, TX noise-poppers Sixteen Deluxe), who contributes synth and lead guitar parts; Jason Rice, who plays piano on ‘Amazed’; and Don Tinsley, who handles bass duties on “Till I Met You” and “Sunshine.” Rounding out the team are Sean Rolie, who partnered with Smith on the mix, and Jason Hamric on mastering. The album itself, which took about a year and a half to complete, reflects Leon’s history as both a player and a consumer. “I have many influences, but as far as which ones I drew from, I would say my former bandmates in 13Ghosts, Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell, as well as Elliott Smith, Big Star, Beatles solo records (Paul McCartney was Leon’s chief inspiration for the “Off The Floor” video), 

Guided By Voices, Foo Fighters, The Zombies... they are all kind of intertwined in some way or another.” Recalling, at times, 60s psychedelia, 70s guitar pop, and 90s alternative rock, the songs on Michael Leon have a classic sensibility surging through them. A casual listener could easily mistake the album for some lost gem, the type of thing you unearth on vinyl at a yard sale and wonder why you never heard of it.

A mission statement of sorts is thrown down early on standout track “Off the Floor,” when Leon bellows “Some think it doesn’t exist anymore/ I feel that rock and roll is still worth fighting for” over guitars that alternately jangle and crunch. The defiance of that statement is sewn into the album, suggesting decades of experience learning from mistakes, picking oneself up, and getting on with it. Themes of regret are served up with a tenderness that lends tracks like the sweet “Country Fair” or the delicately catchy “Running Away” a genuine poignancy, and which makes “Amazed” into a ‘lighters-up’ weepy ballad in the grand arena rock tradition. In all these instances, there’s a fragility to the vocal performances that draws you in. Amongst the album’s darker passages is “Suicide Pig,” which rides a cyclical guitar line into the depths of isolation and depression while still, like all the of the songs here, delivering a surfeit of hooks. That level of song-craft is consistent, and the arrangements, even when Leon sends you adrift on the bent folk of “Long Way Back,” are layered and well-considered, while never fully shedding the homespun quality that gives the proceedings considerable charm. Fans of one-man-band albums like those by Jason Falkner and Todd Rundgren will appreciate the detail-oriented production.

Even so, don’t over-think it. This record wants to be played loud, with the windows down, as you tear down the road between dumb things you have to do. And despite the vintage thrills, don’t call it a nostalgia trip. Leon asks, “Are you living in the past?” on the acoustic intro to “Only One,” and it’s not just a question but an accusation. Michael Leon may have his eye on the musical pleasures of days gone by. But he’s moving forward.

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