[9 March 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Another export of the strangely fruitful and creative music scene in the quaint Vancouver Island city of Victoria, British Columbia, Leeroy Stagger has chosen a much more straightforward sound than the bubblegum post punk of Hot Hot Heat, the dizzying musical adventurousnes of Run Chico Run, and the disturbing theatrics of Frog Eyes. No, he’s doing the least trendy thing of all, taking on the role of the Earnest Singer-Songwriter. It’s not like we ever have a shortage of these kind of guys, either. It seems like they’re a dime a dozen, and when they become popular, they never go away, no matter how annoying they get (the ubiquitousness of John Mayer still boggles the mind). But I digress. The thing is, we’re so inundated by so many sensitive guys with acoustic guitars, that it’s easy to miss the odd artist who’s actually worth listening to, which leads me to young Mr. Stagger, someone who doesn’t deserve to be ignored.
At first glance, it seems Stagger is cut from the Ryan Adams/Jesse Malin mold, that of the rugged, punklike, stylishly coifed, urban alt-country dude, but as badass as he may want to appear, it’s his distinct Canadian-ness that wins you over. Unlike the annoyingly ambitious, preening Adams and the gritty, Springsteen-esque Malin, there’s a sincerity and warmth to Stagger’s music, something heard instantly on his second album, Beautiful House. He’s not just another bad-ass wannabe with a good haircut; his heart-rending portraits are masked by beguiling melodies and pop hooks, to the point that Stagger’s complete lack of pretension is more akin to Ron Sexsmith than Ryan Adams.
Produced by Ottawa singer-songwriter Danny Michel, Beautiful House, as charming as it is, takes its time, feeling its way around, before settling into a comfy, country-tinged (so do we call it Canadiana?) groove midway through. Portions of the album have Stagger trying out a few different sounds, with varying results. The buoyant “Just in Case” is a winner of an indie pop song, the acoustic guitar underscored by a catchy little piano hook, Stagger’s distinctive, raspy voice takes on a Dan Bejar (he of Destroyer) quality, as he sneers, “Everybody in this town needs to shut up,” an obvious jab at his insular hometown of Victoria. “Stupid Love Song” goes for a more blue-eyed soul sound, as its simple guitar melody could easily be replaced by horns, while the jaunty “Sweet Amphetamine” bears a strong similarity to the esoteric pop of New Pornographer A.C. Newman. Conversely, “In the Night” is an attempt at 80s new wave that yields only middling results, and the acoustic “Let Her Down” is little more than filler.
It’s when Stagger goes for that more countrified sound that his album starts to gain momentum. “Count Me Out” is a raucous, abrasive rocker that owes a lot to Steve Earle, his rough-edged voice working well with the equally rough-hewn arrangement. On the other hand, the tender “I Break Hearts” has more of a Jeff Tweedy quality to it, the song accented nicely by Michel’s forlorn melodica performance. The album’s title track has Stagger imaging a happy, almost utopian home with his girl, pining for the simple things in life (“On the roof I’ll fix the leak/The kids will jump rope, hide and seek/The mower never looked so sleek in its life”), with banjo and pedal steel (by longtime Neko Case collaborator Tolan McNeil) adding to the optimistic feel. However, reality seems to set in a few minutes later, as the the melancholy “House of Sin” seems to have Stagger jolting awake after his reverie, as he shakes the cobwebs out of his head, only to see the bleak reality of his home life. Easily the best track on the album, it builds slowly, from plaintive acoustic guitar picking to a sumptuous pedal steel solo five minutes later.
Although it meanders at times, Beautiful House is a very easy album to like. It’s a confident piece of work, serving up an interesting contrast of gutter poetry and pop sense, proving further that Leeroy Stagger is one of Western Canada’s emerging talents.