Imagine the experience of a long-doomed relationship finally flying apart, the center no longer able to hold. Imagine the tension of your comfort zone bursting, the resolve of returning to a life you may have almost forgotten. Somehow, Steve Leaf & The Ex Pats have captured that experience in four songs. From the first wash of fuzzed-out guitars and swirling keyboards giving way to a delicate, keening vocal, the whole experience is unsettlingly familiar–but undeniably charming.
Leaf’s voice warbles like Thom Yorke, but both singer and band present a raw, human vulnerability the Radiohead frontman could never be accused of. The songs always stop short of the bombast that lesser bands might be tempted by, opting instead for the slow burn, utilizing calm and restraint to frightening effect. However, like it’s predecessor, 2014’s excellent Three Circles & a Speaker, the group’s latest outing Lightspeed is far more than a collection of tracks; while each song stands on its own, the impact is far greater taken as a whole. “Be Sure To Write” is the sound of pure heartbreak, musically and lyrically, but when introduced with the menacing pulse of “Hoodwink” or followed by the gentle denouement of “Move,” it becomes part of a larger story of pain and loss–some avoidable, some inevitable–that, despite its barren message, brings with it the condolence of commonality. Everyone who has ever loved has lost, and Leaf and his Ex-Pats somehow manage to tap into the complete experience, bringing it to the speakers in beautiful, trembling, tragic light.
That’s not to say the whole experience is sad or depressing. Great songwriters like those from which Leaf takes his cues–Buckley, Malkmus, Tweedy–are able to find a comfort in a shared hurt, to turn something sad into something awe-inspiringly beautiful, and that’s exactly what Leaf has done here. The four-song arc may begin with the self-sabotage of the title track, but it ends with closure, or at least the promise of closure.
And while Lightspeed is certainly a lyrical journey, it would all fall flat were the music scoring it not so superb. Leaf spent five years writing songs as a solo artist when he met drummer Dan Haefs, who was living in Houghton, MI. After a relocation to Chicago, the two started jamming in the basement of a house in Logan Square. When songs eventually, inevitably took shape, Leaf tapped multi-instrumentalist Nick Young, then working at Chicago’s musical networking nexus Uncommon Ground, as bassist. The trio recorded Three Circles & a Speaker, but as the songs started to evolve, it became clear expansion was necessary, and Joe Ridgway was brought on board to contribute synths.
With a slew of high-profile gigs on their resume–including performances with the likes of Frontier Ruckus, Chadwick Stokes, and The Crane Wives, as well as recording their own Daytrotter session–Steve Leaf & The Ex-Pats have honed themselves into a powerful live act. As the air gets colder, the leaves start to turn and the weather signals an end to summer, the group will be bringing these songs of endings and continuations to the stage for an October 1 performance at the Hideout.
Check out Steve Leaf and The Ex Pats at steveleaf.net