Adored by egghead critics and leathered punkers, the grizzled UK punk veterans in Leatherface offer another live album, Live in Melbourne: Viva La Arthouse (No Idea), that's a sizzling tour de force of both newly-minted tunes and others that delve deep into their ample catalog. As always, the band's tunes highlight singer Frankie Stubb’s gravelly-voiced, poetic lyricism and unabashed pop-on-the-sleeve tendencies. In fact, the group has tackled Cyndi Lauper, the Police, and Elton John without even a wink of insincerity in the past, but this album doesn’t revisit such fare.
Luckily, guitarist Dickie Hammond has re-joined the ranks, so Leatherface's mature mid-1990s output (like the swaying charred innocence of “Summertime” and the blitzkrieg “Not a Day Goes By”) comes to the fore and holds hefty sway. Meanwhile, Stubb’s wit and wordplay fill in the spaces between the music’s dense and robust rumbles, invoking a free association-style rambling resembling Michael Stipe’s (R.E.M.) own non-linear prowess. Tunes like the newish “God Is Dead”, the second track out of the gate, finds Stubbs philosophically conjuring dogs, God, and 1970s socialist hero Victor Allende. It all makes sense, though, for he moves from personal to international affairs, examining both people’s daily habits and the ways ideologies shape undercurrents of history.
“Never Say Goodbye” is a raspy pop gem featuring rough, rancorous edges. The narrative is deeply forlorn and hopeful as “flashbacks flicker” like candles in the wind. Though the vibe is cynical and casts a gray chill, the tune also foretells a future that gets easier when folks recognize that being “blessed” is nonsense. The more sensible act, Stubbs insists, is “starting again” . “Nutcase”, with its understated drum and bass dollops, is perfectly pitched as well: grain silos worth of guitar mask enigmatic couplets like “A donkey is for life, not just for Christmas”. Perhaps Stubbs is using vague symbolism to highlight work ethics, longevity, stubbornness, and dependability.
The slower rock ’n roll churn of “Broken” reveals a life heading towards isolation and regret, when one begins to re-assess words and actions that slip away, leaving people feeling broken, even if we doubt their destruction. Such stabs remind me of the nuanced lyrics of Jesse and Pope, Stubb’s other bands, in which he would emulate Bob Dylan for a stretch, squeezing in complex narrative fare. “Diego Garcia” has a resplendent call and response that asks: “Is there a little bit of light, is there a little bit of hope?” as it bulldozes forward, also asking how the United States. “could build another disgrace.”
The band does not avoid its classics as well: “I Want the Moon” roars at 110 MPH like the dreams of Garcia Lorca on crystal meth; “Pale Moonlight” unleashes soaring melodies and crunchy riffage underscored with a Romantic novel vibe, replete with lines about dancing with the devil; “Dead Industrial Atmosphere” plumbs the works of poet and painter William Blake with finesse, picturing wounded faces and disemboweled cityscapes; and lastly, the drunken rally cry “Hops and Barley” pitches forward like a soccer chant. In all, this is a rich, breathless, spirited, and superbly recorded addition to the Leatherface repertoire, a rarity from a band unspooling twenty unstable years of history into the set, song by song.
Leatherface - Hops & Barley / Stevie Bruce's Red & White Army