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Leon III Finds Unique Psych Roots on Their Self-Titled Debut

Merging a wealth of ideas with precise construction, Leon III push beyond their country music roots into exciting new areas where folk and psych meet.

Leon III
Leon III
Cornelius Chapel
11 May 2018

The Wrinkle Neck Mules have their alt-country down. They have 15 years under their belts, with an album to show for about every other year of that run. When they titled 2015’s release I Never Thought It Would Go This Far, it seemed as honest as it was funny. Barring some sort of epiphanic moment – a new religion, a new drug, a new baby – bands don’t tend to offer surprises at this point. Groups might adapt to changing trends and updated technology, but they and their fans know their sweet spot. It’s more fine-tuning than sudden artistic explosions.

Or maybe that’s what side projects are for.

If that’s the case, WNMers singer/guitarist Andy Stepanian and guitarist Mason Brent took exactly the right step in becoming (with an array of well qualified guests) Leon III. Their debut self-titled album doesn’t leap away from the Mules’ sound and, in fact, fans of one will likely appreciate the other even if this one has far more alt and far less country. But Leon III takes that alt-country background and finds new territory to explore, primarily through tasteful psychedelia and carefully constructed (but never stale) songwriting. The textures suggest some cosmic country influences, but the music never opens up that much, and avoids becoming that country. It might have some roots in Uncle Tupelo, but with a less rustic aesthetic. The pair cite the Grateful Dead as a key influence, but they don’t sound like Deadheads.

Their cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus” offers a way into their approach. The song choice doesn’t conform to expectations, but the group adds a deeply haunting feeling to it, largely because of the delay on the vocals, attributed to an unrepeatable glitch in the recording process. That mood turns into “Alberta”, one of the album’s highlights, a patient track that talk ambiguously about missed dreams, resisted nostalgia, and the search for personal definition (“Alberta, call me by name”).

Opener “Maybe I’m Immune?” reveals the group’s willingness to embrace the slow build. Stepanian’s vocals gradually become more frustrated as the song builds. It takes five minutes to get a full release, at which point everything stops for a brief guitar complaint and then reconstructs itself with the possibly immune (but only possibly) Stepanian now gone. “From These Heights” begins with a radio transmission from outer space before Stepanian introduces a melancholy that permeates the album. The song reappears in reworked form almost as an outro for the album, completing Leon III’s exploration of disappointment.

Leon III may be a band that “Can’t find the haystack / Much less the needle”, according to “Between the Saddle & the Ground”, but they have shown a remarkable ability to find exactly what’s needed for any given song, whether it’s a bit of pedal steel, a little piano, and just some apt production (handled by Mark Nevers in Nashville). Stepanian and Brent have managed to combine a wealth of experience influences into something unexpectedly singular, making Leon III a wonderful discovery, challenging expectations within the songs themselves, whether long-time fans or first-time listeners.

RATING 8 / 10