Release date 5/11/18
Nearly every album on your record shelf or taking up hard drive space on your laptop was the product of multiple voices and minds, all coming together for the purpose of making a singular piece of art. That anyone manages to be successful at such an endeavor, with so many cooks in the proverbial kitchen is one of the great mysteries and joys of music making.
That was definitely the case with the debut album by Leon III (pronounced “Leon The Third”), the new project from former Wrinkle Neck Mules members Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent. To kick off this fresh endeavor, the pair decamped to Nashville for the legendary Beech House Studios (this album would be the final sessions for the 30-year-old studio, which is being moved to South Carolina) and put their songs and their trust in the hands of a small army of session musicians. And their collective efforts helped shepherd into reality a measured masterpiece of sweetly psychedelic ramblers, spacious folk-pop, and lived in roots-rock.
Leading the charge was Mark Nevers. A veteran of the country-leaning indie scene thanks to his peerless work with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lambchop, and Silver Jews, he was the band’s first choice for collaborator on this new endeavor.
“When I set out to do this project,” Stepanian remembers, “I wanted to do it in a big way. And I wanted to use a producer out of the gate and I wanted to break out from Wrinkle Neck Mules and try something new. There was a short list of people I wanted to work with and Mark was right at the top. It turned out to be the right call.”
The proof of that is cooked right into the music. Nevers brought in some top notch session players, including drummer Brian Kotzur (Bobby Bare, Silver Jews), pianist Tony Crow (B.J. Thomas, Andrew Bird), singer Jordan Caress (Laura Cantrell, Justin Townes Earle), guitarist Chris Scruggs (grandson of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs), and pedal steel wizard Pete Finney (Justin Townes Earle, Kelly Willis), to help add texture and definition to these already sharply rendered songs. Mostly, Nevers contributed an environment that helped fuel the album’s laid back vibe.
“He creates a chill atmosphere to the recording process and that helps the songs go down a certain way,” says Stepanian. “When you ask him to turn his producer hat on, which we did from the beginning, he brings a lot of elements to the table. Some of it I was reluctant to accept at first but hearing it now, I think, ‘That was perfect.’ Mark has a way of giving you faith in your own songs.”
And what songs they are. Just check out “From These Heights,” a tune that falls in and out of focus like trying to read your phone after a few too many cocktails, woozy with the sound of pedal steel and the thrum of a mandolin. Right next door, “Paper Eye” meanders into psychedelic territory with the pulse of a synthesizer rubbing suggestively up against the sweep of a string section and some dub-like production touches. In addition, Leon III gives their own lysergic spin on “Jesus,” one of the signature tracks on The Velvet Underground’s 1969 self-titled third album, and find fresh insight in the song’s spiritual pleadings.
Taken as a whole, Leon III’s debut is a multi-dimensional ride through ten thematically interconnected and musically rich tunes. The songs are filled with dark corners and shadows but still produce sing along, anthemic moments. If Stepanian and Brent wanted to break from their alt-country past, they have clearly done so without wholly abandoning the idiom. In the process, they have paved the way for a diverse and varied future for Leon III.