While Leeroy Stagger is at a young age both literally (making the transition out of his 20s) and professionally (his latest effort Depression River is his fourth album, all of his projects having been released since 2004), the singer-songwriter from British Columbia gives evidence of sonic maturity and a growing mastery of the rudiments necessary to produce alt.country/Americana rock that is both starkly honest and affecting in nature. Stagger’s sound is just the right combination of honky-tonk swagger and earnest melancholy, the sincerity of his words accented by the unadorned melodies which give them life.
Depression River is a furthering of these ideals which have garnered Stagger an ever-increasing amount of attention from critics and roots rock purists. Using the album’s 13 songs largely to chronicle the misadventures and failings of characters who lay tired bones to rest in nowhere towns, Stagger touches on themes both universal and specific. Backed capably by the Sinking Hearts, the record recalls the textures and tones of contemporaries like Ryan Adams and Jesse Malin as well as influences like Dylan and Petty without the material ever seeming disingenuous or disparate.
Opening with jangling rocker “Where I Live”, Stagger and the Sinking Hearts establish a moderate rock tempo which sets the pace for the album’s initial tracks. The back porch stomp of the title cut and melodic charm of “Wish You Were the Trees” are early highlights. The latter is neatly arranged to allow for maximum interplay between forward moving guitars and complimentary piano figures while Stagger exhibits a charming understanding of falling “in love for the first time,” expressing affection for the object of his desire though realistically concluding “the first time hurts so I guess it really doesn’t count.”
Stagger slows the pace on the country ballad “Payback” and for all the appeal and punch of his up-tempo tracks with their various attitudes and stylistic approaches, “Payback” and tracks like it on Depression River are where Stagger’s songwriting truly comes alive. Against the backdrop of a lovely chord progression and the plaintive moan of steel guitar, Stagger attempts stoicism in the face of losing love, singing “There’s no use in crying or screaming out your name / I guess I had it coming, for getting in this game / Lick the salt from my wounds / Curl up on the couch / Pay back what I owe, I reap what I sow / I wish you were here.”
Through the album’s ballads, Stagger skillfully and beautifully expresses hopelessness, resolve, and a remarkable self-awareness, sometimes even within the same song. On “Saskatoon”, Stagger’s narrator promises his lover, a desperate woman whose world view grows bleaker and bleaker (“She’s only happy in the morning / Maybe cause she hasn’t seen the rest of the world”) that “Everything will be better by Saskatoon, baby…” though you wonder if he truly believes his own pledge when finishing that sentence with “or I’m getting out of here.” Stagger’s splendid bent towards the sober and sorrowful is expressed well through other standout tracks including story songs “One of the Lucky Ones” and “Carol”, as well as one of the album’s best and strangest cuts: the dark and gradually sprawling “Tired of Being High”, which features a slow burning, Ryan Adams-esque outro that punctuates the frustration expressed in the song’s initial verses. Following up this moody, electric number with album closer “Jesus and the Liquor”, which opens in a folky, Dylan-like fashion proves to be a nice sequencing choice, bringing balance to the end of the record.
With all that is outstanding about Depression River, most notably Stagger’s penchant for excellent balladry and the ease with which he and his band move back and forth from such cuts to roadhouse romps, there is still room for Stagger to continue growing into the significant artist he’s beginning to look like. There are no major faults to be found with the album and very few minor ones but as a still relatively young artist, Stagger’s work could stand to suffer a little more refining. Not in such a way as to smooth the wonderfully rough edges of his compositions but simply to allow his songs to enjoy the benefit of a bit more editing and fine-tuning; catching the occasional awkward turn of phrase or trimming the length of a song here or there would only serve to heighten the impact of Stagger’s already potent material.
Depression River is a strong and poignant declaration from an artist whose voice is growing in its confidence and need to be heard. If he can continue to build upon the level of quality already present in his work, Leeroy Stagger’s name will be hard to neglect in any conversation about what is right with alt.country and down-to-earth modern rock.