With the surge in new album releases lately, it has been quite the challenge in keeping up with all of the comings and goings in the Canadian music scene. And while some artists were shuffled to the front of the line for our listening pleasures and ‘research’ here at Great Dark Wonder, others simply had to wait their turn. Released back on September 13th, “Strange Path” is the latest album from Lethbridge, AB, singer-songwriter Leeroy Stagger, his 13th album to date, and an absolute beauty that was definitely well worth the wait.
Released through True North Records, I will confess that it was the recent coverage surrounding the anniversary of Gord Downie’s passing that prompted me to spend time with this album; particularly for “Hey Hey! (For Gord),” a moving tribute to the Canadian icon. Timing the release of this track to coincide with the week devoted to Secret Path, “Hey Hey!” has a light, breezy, Jimmy Buffett feel that never fails to put a smile on my face when thinking of the man at the heart of this song. And only when I spent time with the whole album did I find “Leonard Cohen (Is Dead),” a much more haunting tribute to another lost icon. Nice work with the placement of these tracks too, with Cohen immediately following Downie in the rotation.
The concept of “Strange Path” applies as much to Leeroy’s unexpected journey from the BC punk scene to AB singer-songwriter as it does to the album’s own evolution; one nurtured from an abundance of scrapped demos and a personal spirit-reviving retreat inwards. The end result demonstrates an adventurous direction for Stagger, offering an album full of sharp hooks and sharper insight, and as discovered with the first single, “Strange Attractor,” one that rides that particular line right to the end. I was not prepared for the glam-rock explosion at the heart of this track, which sees Leeroy tap into the sounds of Norman Greenbaum and T-Rex with such ease, and prompting images of glittered faces and platform boots. “Nothing is permanent when you really stop and think,” he shares. “The home we live in, the car we drive, the children we raise … it’s not forever, it’s barely real, and that’s ok to me because … in seeing that it’s not that big of a deal, this has shown me how beautiful it all is. Strange Attractor is about the unseen nature of impermanence and the sacredness of the life we live.”
Spending time with this album, it becomes apparent very quickly that Leeroy Stagger not only chose to disregard the industry norms, he was more than happy to toss the ‘how to make a generic album’ rulebook out of the window. I personally grew up as part of ‘Generation X,’ making the broad variety of sounds and styles across “Strange Path” a twenty-first century version of the cool ‘eighties’ mix tape. Oh yes, that era of recording top 40 songs from the radio, of recording favorite tracks from the album collection of my siblings onto cassette, and the final hurrah, burning a mix CD. After that, music went digital, MP3 players became the rage, and the whole process became too predictable. Leeroy Stagger skips the “Generation Y” years, and takes me back to those 80s and 90s years of carefully crafted and curated play lists (and making full use of the 45 minutes per side of an average audio cassette tape).
So just how different are these new tunes? Go ahead and start with the opening track, “Mother,” a great laid back folksy-rock tune of the Matt Mays & El Torpedo nature, and an atmospheric organ that never offers any indication that Stagger is ready to blow everything else up once it fades out. Following with some retro riffs and slight outlaw country vibe, “Deeper Well” oozes with a charm normally reserved for the likes of Tom Petty or Steve Earle; both influences clearly at the heart of this number. Skip a few tracks to “Nobody Alive (Gets Out Of Here)” and “These Things,” to marvel at the great synth-rock balladry that would not sound out of place on any Adam Baldwin album. All are unexpected, but that ‘bang’ is yet to come.
“Breaking News” is a synth-pop crossover of epic proportions. With some replica drum machine and the bouncing of keys from speaker-to-speaker, this one has some strong vintage eighties DNA. And be patient, wait for Leeroy to reach his bridge, and the rockier side of this genre kicks in nicely, followed by a highly unexpected foray into the sounds of early Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. Bizarre, right? But it works, it works REALLY well. For more of the powerhouse eighties synth rock sounds, “Jesus + Buddah” is an equally impressive throwback to the decade of excess. With the keys and guitars held in check by a very low end throbbing bass line, it is Stagger’s vocals that dominate so well here. And don’t miss out on the retro dueling instruments around the 2:20 mark, which are out of this world. “Which way to home?” Stagger asks his audience at the track’s sharp close.
Closing with “The Light,” Leeroy Stagger slows things right back down, tapping once again into vintage Steve Earle territory with this folk slow burner. “Here comes the big bad wolf / He’s out looking for blood / Where the man is calling for rain / Ready for the flood,” he delivers in Earle’s signature style. Adding some renewed passion each time the chorus rolls around, Stagger demonstrates many similarities to another Canadian icon, the legendary Neil Young, delivering the lines: “I am a speck of light / Stuck in the throes of love / I am a starless night / Divine from above.” With this perfect end to a stunning album, while I rarely show my hand too early when narrowing down my year-end list of favorite albums, there is no way to ignore “Strange Path” in that conversation. Leeroy Stagger has created something incredibly unique and ground-breaking here, exceeding my expectations and leaving me pondering over how he could possibly top this. Highly recommended….and then some!