“I won’t tell you it’ll be all right, I don’t know / But it gets better than this (well, not for certain, but it happens) / At 40 years old, sentimental songs can seem like ethical transactions.” — Leverage Models, “Day One”
Shannon Fields, who is credited as writing, producing, recording, and arranging Whites, the second full-length album by Leverage Models, seems to have a musical brain that works overtime. The synthpop sounds that flood all ten songs on the album contain enough ideas for a boxed set. What’s more, referring to Whites as “synthpop” seems to undersell it.
But what’s wrong with synthpop? Besides, while there’s definitely a synthetic, keyboard-heavy, Auto-Tuned flavor to the music, it’s executed with such complex sophistication that fans of practically any genre will find something to appreciate here.
Fields and the rest of Leverage Models (co-fronted by former Tiny Hazard member Alena Spanger on vocals) actually completed work on Whites in 2015, but “small-label economic troubles” – to quote the press release – delayed the release, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election prompted a live hiatus. According to Fields, “As hard as we worked on that record and wanted it to be heard, I couldn’t keep being entertaining and pushing my record, saying ‘look at me’ every night, in the face of what was happening in the country.” Eventually, the record found a home on Anachronisme, a small label based in the suburbs north of Boston (Fields is currently based out of upstate New York).
It turns out the wait was worth it. Coming five years after their self-titled debut album (which was preceded by three EPs: Interim Deliverable, Forensic Accounting and Cooperative Extensions), Whites shows Fields and the rest of the band in a musically intense, creatively vibrant mood. The album certainly doesn’t sound like the result of something that’s been in mothballs for three years. If anything, the lyrical content seems tailor-made for the age of Trump, despite – or perhaps partly due to – the fact that it was created in the moments leading up it. There’s a sense of fear, trepidation, and paranoia running rampant throughout Whites. “A Scout’s Prayer (What a White Man Knows)” almost seems like an instruction manual for surviving the apocalypse: “When the lights go out you’ll have to make a fire,” the chorus goes. “You will have to be a Boy Scout when the power lines fall.”
Survival seems to be a recurring theme, but it’s framed by a curious combination of desperation, hope, and community. Banding together to fight the odds. “If I Let You Stay” includes the priceless couplet “Tomorrow the day will just beat you down / Until then I’m around.” On the single “Senators”, the paranoia is palpable: “We made coffee on the hotplate / We ate ramen in the hallway / We identified the exits just in case.”
The strong ’80s musical vibe that runs through Whites seems oddly appropriate: the Cold War jitters of the Reagan era are frighteningly timely in the age of Trump and Putin. But while the influences of synth-fueled tunesmiths like Scritti Politti and Erasure, as well as post-punk pioneers like Talking Heads, are all over this album, Leverage Models actually build and expand on those New Wave touchstones. There’s plenty of pop hooks on Whites, but it would be wildly inaccurate to describe anything here as matching the minimalism of Remain in Light. There’s way too much aural stimulation and dense earworms going on here as if Fields had a feeling he was making his final artistic statement (which I certainly hope isn’t the case) and wanted to cram everything in his head into 35 minutes.
Case in point: the opening section of “Day One” (the first track on Whites) is a soothing pulse of shimmering keyboards and Fields singing about economic instability and the importance of hope, but eventually the mood is smashed to pieces by a cacophonous, distorted drum fill and the song becomes a danceable anthem with Fields and Spanger singing “Things have to fall apart some more before we know why we care or what we’re here for.”
Later on, militaristic New Order-esque dance beats thump away on “Dark Pools (Music Will Not Save Us)”, but these dancefloor rhythms are deceiving – bits of percussion and layers of melody give the song plenty of sophistication without losing any of the basic charms. This is most certainly a headphone-friendly album – repeated, concentrated listening at high volume will reveal new elements almost every time.
Even when Leverage Models pull back the throttle and explore more ballad-oriented content, it’s full of rich complexity: “Your Healthiest Friends” functions as a duet between Fields and Spanger, backed by ethereal keyboard sequences and a bass-heavy rhythm section before opening wide with almost gospel-flavored elements and generous drum fills. Even with everything else going on, Whites still manages to crank out something of a Bic-lighting arena anthem.
On their website, the Leverage Models mission statement is spelled out clearly, in bright pastel: “Leverage Models makes pop songs about transubstantiation, ritual abuse, political apathy, divorce, white collar criminals, poverty, white liberal guilt, anxiety, & self-harm. With roto-toms.” The last bit is likely a winking acknowledgment of their penchant for gleaming retro instrumentation, but it’s a serious, accurate assessment, and vital in today’s ass-backward sociopolitical landscape. The music world can gain a great deal by paying close attention to this band. If they don’t, well, maybe we don’t deserve them.