LEON FREAR – Wild Rice

A singer songwriter with a very old soul, Leon Frear channels various moods on his debut album ‘Wild Rice’. In his own words, his work is more concerned with “strong lyrics [than] sticking to one type of music”, but his singularity of voice and depth of mood throughout the ten songs actually results in a listen that’s surprisingly consistent. His distinctive vocal presence gives the material a sense of unity, but more than that, the themes of loss and of feeling lost create a strong narrative thread.

‘A Town Called Chapel’ wastes no time in introducing listeners to his darkened world, via an intro that’s loaded with oppressive drums that attack, almost battle like, whilst a very retro sounding guitar slowly weaves a hard, yet spacious twang. The body of the track settles into a very melodic, retro rock groove and those guitars transition from a heady twang into an almost college rock friendly jangle, but its Frear’s voice – a ravaged, husky presence – which constantly draws the ear. He pulls everyone into a place where people “walk in shoes they never bought” (clearly a reference to the unwanted cloud of depression; a much smarter turn of phrase than the well worn black dog of Nick Drake lore) among “freaks and fools” and a place where beds burn with abandon, to be put out by the collective tears of troubled townsfolk. Lyrically, it has an air of Tom Waits – though far less pointed, or obtuse – but the way Frear uses his natural vocal, especially against a heavier, rock influenced riff that occasionally surfaces, owes much more, melodically, to the sometimes underrated John Cale. Overall, this blend of retro rock and dark indie vibes held together under a strong voice opens the album brilliantly, and in a way that’ll further pique the audience’s interest.

Equally cool, ‘A Harvestman’ places a descending drum groove beneath a hard twanged guitar to create another great intro. Taking that twang, Leon fills the rest of the track with a rootsy rock arrangement that has an almost gothic tone. The melodies work around a lop-sided waltz, which is just perfect for sharp lyrics concerning a killer who’d plagued a small town in times gone by, and the end result sounds like a dour melody from the Fred Abong catalogue spliced onto something from The Stranglers’ underrated post-Cornwell years. Even after a warning that ‘Wild Rice’ is a mixed bag, this still comes as a great musical surprise, and the track’s climax where an angry guitar collides with a carny inspired keyboard part creates a genuinely superb atmosphere. Factor in some of the album’s darkest lyrical ideas – one of the verses suggests that ground bones will sweeten tea – and this becomes not only an obvious highlight for this album, but a near perfect introduction to Frear’s work for first time listeners.

Markedly different, yet still retaining a pleasing darkness, ‘Sweet Dreams Say Goodbye’ stokes up the 90s alt-rock influences with a heavy vibe that focuses more upon a distorted vocal and atonal guitar, but in true Frear’s fashion, this is never an easy retread of any of its influences. The distorted elements sit uneasily against a disquieting vocal, whilst occasionally tinkled piano hints at something more haunting. Sometimes sounding like an old Tindersticks number mangled with glee, this aims to share the dark heart of the album more directly, but it’s fair to say that ‘Wild Rice’ actually features more interesting arrangements and richer tunes. ‘Drowning Horses’ is a case in point, since its fat bass groove fits brilliantly with some quiet vocals, whilst a hard struck piano presents a very strong counter melody. Here, you’ll find more Tindersticks love, and even a nod to Mike Johnson’s sadcore sounds, but there’s no mistaking the hand of Frear at work. Then, in an unexpected twist, the mournful melodies give way for a speed driven climax where live sounding drums rattle above the original tune, and the vocal shifts to suit without ever breaking the mood. With Frear handling all instrumental duties (as he does on the rest of the record), the production values also do some very heavy lifting here; there’s a superb separation between the elements at every turn, and despite being very much a DIY venture, nothing sounds as if it were done on the quick and the cheap.

In another change of mood, ‘Secret Second Moon’ works a brilliant combination of 60s rock, 90s fuzz and a big sense of attitude. The music leans heavily on a melodic rockabilly style, allowing a huge sounding guitar to lay down chunky chords throughout, whilst a jazzier tone applied to the lead brings a retro feel of a very different kind. The track has a faint echo of early Tom Waits, and an equally faint nod to the slacker jazz of Morphine, but the heavier use of guitar ensures this never feels like an easy copy of either. Frear’s voice, meanwhile, has the presence of a world weary gumshoe from an old noir film; a man slightly brow beaten, but determined to rise above the world’s grim realities. As a stand-alone track, it’s great. As part of ‘Wild Rice’s collection of questioning tales, it plays even better, since it really shows how, as a musician, Leon is unafraid to try anything – very much playing into his claim that his lyrics are far more important than forging a cohesive musical style.

A little more direct, ‘Foie Gras’ introduces a post-punk rhythm and harder sounding guitars on an arrangement that sounds like a brilliant throwback to the early 90s. Adding atonal lead work to offset the chopping rhythms, Frear’s guitar playing owes a small debt to Andy Summers, but in the main, this isn’t especially Police-like. Instead, he uses that style to colour a great pop rocker that is bass heavy, while various percussive elements supply strong and almost jazzy melodies throughout. It really doesn’t sit easily with the other tracks, musically speaking, but on its own, it displays a punchy style that shows off Frear’s impressively malleable arrangement skills.

Elsewhere, ‘She Fed Me Water’ features a brilliantly repetitive acoustic riff that’s peppered with harmonics, and Frear uses that to underscore a militaristic drum part, before taking everything in the direction of something else that fuses a great darkness with an accessible pop-rock sound. The blend of semi-spoken vocals – very much of the Leonard Cohen school – and college rock bass sounds is great, and the darker folk rock inspirations colouring an understated chorus are classic Frear. The busier instrumental sections will make an impression before the rest of the track, but in time, this will inspire repeated listens. For something more direct, ‘A Murder of Crows’ reintroduces the fat bass and college rock guitars, but the presence of wonky sounding Hawaiian guitar parts and a clanky countermelody ensure this sounds almost like nothing else on the album. With a slightly louder presence, Frear clearly knows that this is much more immediate than about half of ‘Wild Rice’, but rest assured, the rockier style doesn’t ever detract from his haunting lyrics which, in this case recalls a “never ending storm” and a “loss of hope”, and the arrival of an ominous figure. In short, it’s certainly interesting, and if you want to hear something that sounds like the faint echo of Nick Cave’s ‘Henry’s Dream’ in collusion with John Cale and a goth rock band, then this will very much appeal.

Every bit as good as its pre-release singles suggested it would be, ‘Wild Rice’ is an album that’s rich in texture. It’s dark, brooding and sometimes moving, even at times when the musical arrangements suggest otherwise on a surface level. It is also full of songs that are lyrically deep, and also offers music which transports the listener away from the grey of the every day and into places where Leon’s poetic thoughts and feelings offer even more to think about. It takes a few plays before its best moments become clear, but there’s little doubt that ‘Wild Rice’s mature style marks out Frear as a superb songwriter and a timeless talent.

May 2024