You've probably never heard of Leatherface. Most people my age haven't. The post-punk crew from Sunderland, England, dropped its first release (Cherry Knowle) in '89, broke up on the heels of its fourth LP Minx, reformed in '98, released a split with Hot Water Music in '99, and finally recorded Horsebox on BYO records, the band's first LP in six years. It was on the '99 tour with HWM -- which was their first US tour -- that I first heard the group that some consider the forebears of that most idiotic, insipid moniker: emo.
Of course, Leatherface sounds nothing like Dashboard Confessional, Conor Oberst, or any of the other one-dimensional pap that people call emo. When I saw them play at a small church in College Park, Maryland, to an audience of 150 or so, it seemed like a Bizarro World hardcore show. There was no floorpunching or spinkicking, just a bunch of old crusty diehards wailing their guts out, a handful of young tough guys gazing amorously at what sounded like a stripped down version of Hot Water Music, and Chuck Ragan (of HWM) thrashing around the pit like an uncaged gorilla.
Frankie Stubbs, Leatherface's frontman, has throaty gravel that easily rivals Lemmy (of Motorhead) or Tom Waits, which is why, I suppose, it wasn't strange that a gang of hardcore kids was entranced by Stubbs's sparse, yet pretty melodies, and his surprisingly personal and poetic lyrics (when you could understand them).
Stubbs has the kind of presence that makes you believe every word he says. And aside from the songs he's there to sing, he doesn't say much. He mostly stands there, eyes closed, squirming about behind the mic, churning out song after song, looking thoughtfully uncomfortable, like he's trying to solve a Zen koan.
Fortunately -- for all Leatherface's diehard fans at least -- the band still sounds the same. The group's sixth LP, Dog Disco, is more diary-style lyrics, dirty, poppy guitar lines, and mid-tempo cadence. Occasionally, Stubbs breaks out with a Van Halen guitar lick ("Heed the Ball") or drummer Andrew Laing slips in some double bass drum ("You"), but for the most part, the band is as restrained as Weezer.
There's plenty of lingering back-ups to echo Stubbs's haunted vocals, and quite a few off-kilter fills and rhythms to keep the sound interesting, but there's no doubt about what the music is there to do: balance Stubbs's lyrics. Even while that's the case, it's not as if listening to Leatherface is like listening to Silver Jews. You're not listening to a guy who claims to be a poet first, musician second. Leatherface still sounds like a group of passionate, convicted musicians; and after 15 years, they still know how to rock.