Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bruised Leather

Hey Day

I was excited to get an opportunity to review the new record by Leatherbag, because they've come up in more than one conversation as one of Austin's better "singer/songwriter"-type bands. Sadly, Hey Day is pointless naptime music. All I know for sure now is that I've had more than one conversation with Austin residents who don't have the slightest clue what good songwriting actually constitutes.

There's a lot more to putting a song together than picking how long to strum each guitar chord and then writing lyrics. The "compositions" on Hey Day are totally interchangeable, as if leader Randy Reynolds just told the band to do whatever they felt like. The drums, bass, and lead guitar plod anonymously; good luck finding a single memorable hook of any kind anywhere on this yawner. The few places where the arrangements show any kind of imagination are either artificial constructs (the false ending to "Go To Sleep") or just failures (the tedious full minute of guitar scale practice that intros "Forever Blue").

The total lack of self-awareness that plagues the band extends to the vocal melodies, which are non-existent. By the end of the record I was singing Jeff Tweedy stuff to myself over Leatherbag's generic accompaniment just have to something to hold on to. I suppose what people mean nowadays when they say "good singer-songwriter" is "dude with pleasant voice and OK lyrics," with both of which Reynolds does come equipped. The obvious, but incorrect, comparison would be Bob Dylan, but to me he sounds like an even sleepier Mark Knopfler, except without Knopfler's guitar playing to provide some sort of listener engagement.

There's three different classes of lyricists. The first kind simply plagiarize; the second kind take established forms and manage to reorganize them just well enough to qualify as original; the third and rarest kind follow their own muse. Reynolds is almost always in the second category and he falls back towards the first far more often than he ever glimpses the third. "Senseless Irony," which has the closest thing to a real chorus on Hey Day and seems to actually shake the rhythm section out of their coma for three minutes, undermines its album highlight status with a groaning, insight-free "music scene" lyric.

This isn't the worst local album I'll hear this year by far. The band is together and the lead guitar is occasionally head-nodding; I'll bet they acquit themselves fairly well live for a band with basically no songs. But boy, does Hey Day hurt my opinion of local tastes. Austin can do way, way better than this and if you don't recognize that you're not listening hard enough.

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