Leon III by Leon IIIRelease date: May 11, 2018
Label: Cornelius Chapel Records
Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent, the two guys comprising Leon III might not be the most common names, even to ardent followers of the Americana/folk/country/rock side of the modern music. But looking at the list of participants and helping hands that took part in recording their debut self-titled album, you might immediately get the idea in which direction the things are going. Not only that, but you get a sense that they have already impressed somebody to get such a support.
The list is actually quite extensive – we’ve got drummer Brian Kotzur (Bobby Bare, Silver Jews), pianist Tony Crow (B.J. Thomas, Andrew Bird), singer Jordan Caress (Laura Cantrell, Justin Townes Earle), guitarist Chris Scruggs (grandson of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs), and pedal steel wizard Pete Finney (Justin Townes Earle, Kelly Willis), who joined producer and Lambchop member Mark Nevers (Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lambchop, Silver Jews, Yo La Tengo). Still, the question opens up – are Stepanian and Brent, aka Leon III, that good to get such a stellar (alternative country/folk) support?
There are generally two problems that can bog down such projects where an upcoming band is supported by experienced, slick, distinguished players – the egos clash or distinguished support crushes undistinguished music by the newcomers. Or even both.
Luckily, none of that here on Leon III. Besides obviously possessing all the elements of the genre in their small fingers, Stepanian and Brent. More importantly, though they are able to come up with a set of songs that stand on their own, providing a backbone for the duo’s vocals as well as giving the guest players enough space to show their stuff.
With all the guests bringing in pieces of the sound they are connected with, the connecting glue with Leon III is their obvious inspiration from The Grateful Dead, something they offer themselves. Still, it is no copying of Workingman’s Dead or From The Mars Hotel (Stepanian mentions, for example, that he came across a line for their song ‘Between the Saddle and the Ground’ while reading annotated lyrics for the Dead’s ‘China Doll’). It is is the concept in which the songs are constructed here and the psych spirit that hovers over them, more than anything else.
While there’s not a single song here that lags behind or just slips by like aural wallpaper, particularly impressive are the opener ‘Maybe I’m Immune?’, ‘From These Heights’ and ‘Jesus’, their version of the Velvets classic.
So, it turns out there was certainly solid music ground for Leon III to have such a support on their debut, one of the more impressive psych Americana albums of the year so far.