Digitized music makes cherry picking songs a clambake for listeners, but imagine being on the opposite side of the glass. Imagine sitting in a sound proof room; the headphones protruding from the side of your head spilling a melody into your ears; the lined paper in front of you holds song lyrics, which you will sing into a microphone inches from your mouth. Every second you spend thinking, clearing your throat, rewriting lyrics, lost in thought…will literally cost you money.
Now imagine deciding on the 10-13 songs that will make up the album. Think for a moment about the 20 second blip of sound that music buyers across the globe will listen before they choose to buy—before they decide to put you, your life’s work, your missed rent payment to pay for packaging—on a playlist that will be listened while jogging, working, cooking…
To be sure, the albums we buy are emotionally complicated for both artist and listener. For an unsigned band recording an album is an act of blind faith. For Anthony Leon and the Chain making music is as natural as breathing. Recording their first album, the band’s sound is like a prayer before the power switch makes contact in the death house.
Anthony Leon and the Chain’s new album ("The Pistol, The Bottle, and Shaded Pastures" is the working title) is a collection of songs both broad in honky-tonk swagger and slick ambition. Produced by Jono Manson and recorded in his Chupadero, NM studio, The Kitchen Sink, Anthony Leon, Daniel Jaramillo and Carlos Rodriguez sweat out a year-long effort to release their first full-length album.
The album is like a house of motherless children…free spirited banshees bouncing in all directions. There are moments, “Brand New Mod” and “Long Live (Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll)” where the songs, as filtered through the recording process, lose the patina that makes the band exciting to watch live. The dirt beneath the Leon’s fingernails is a key ingredient to his appeal, which is to say that his experiences ring true, unfeigned. The respective subjects that vary in depravity and exposition leave the songs weightless in the spotless recording.
“She Loves Me” and “Eternity Too” turn the corner onto a new sonic environment. With Manson’s guidance a new potential in Leon’s music is reached: rich warmth with Manson’s guitar textures, Gary Miller’s keyboards and harmonies round the spiky edges of Leon’s voice. Manson works Leon’s strengths (lyrics, vocals, delivery) into a manageable platform, where once bad barroom acoustics hid the finer points of the sound.
“Shotgun, 3:16 (until now) and Uncle Sam” explode with sound courtesy of Brett Davis, Sharon Gilchrist, Felicia Ford and the aforementioned players. It is “Uncle Sam” that throws all the kids into the pool. If Leon wasn’t singing about a weed hook-up, this tune would be blowing up skirts in a Pentecostal revival tent. Its harmonies break the driving melody in sweeping natural waves that add inspired and necessary pauses.
The albums finale, “Over the Mountain” is an Americana roots gem. Its Appalachian lyrical sourcing: moonshine, coal mines, desperation for a better life…is applied in generous doses. Through vocal harmonies, Gilchrist’s mandolin and slender banjo plucking the song is a direct line to the beginning of Leon’s passion for making music. It may not be his current path, but it serves as a poignant reminder that the most simplest of melodies are often the most difficult to construct.
Anthony Leon and the Chain have been making music in Santa Fe for a relatively short period of time, but they have managed to capture audiences with explosive live performances and Leon’s Barbaric Yawp. Their new album may not reveal their entire wingspan, but it serves to remind us that music, through a full-length album or cannibalized playlist, can reach deeply into our spirits and create something soulful no matter how it comes to pass.