These are songs where Leaf gives detailed warnings about terrors at sea, God's revenge, sharks on the freeway and even bullets to the brain without so much as a tense shout. Therefore, long after your spin of their latest release Three Circles & A Speaker is over, you're forced to look behind closet doors and flip on every light in the house: Leaf's delivery and the band's reserved performances make these boogiemen all the more real.
Leaf (vocals/guitar), bassist Nick Young and drummer Dan Haefs crafted the album in the summer of 2013, using guitarist Ryan Anderson on a few cuts and later implementing Joe Ridgway on synths after recording completed. Throughout the album's nine tracks, Leaf and company provide wells of warm emotional depth with a playing style that, in the wrong hands, could come off as cold and distant. They allow open space to act as its own instrument, giving cuts like "The Great Deluge" and "Parallax" the audio equivalent of a chest's rise and fall. These are startlingly original compositions; far from dog-eared retreads off The Bends. In the golden age of mix tapes, these guys would've fit snugly next to a wide-range of performers: enigmatic souls like Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave or Geoff Farina to indie darlings such as Low, Ida or Luna.
And in today's current tenure of one-song downloads, Steve Leaf & The Ex-Pats fly in the face of convention, giving us an album with honest-to-goodness flow. The aforementioned "Parallax" (ending with a graceful crescendo of snare rolls and Leaf's cry of walls being built) falls right into the adamant downstrokes of "Lyalin Pereulok" without missing a beat; head-bopping instrumental "Oslo" gives way to the equally groove-heavy "Blood in the Snow," both tracks sporting just a slight nod to the full-band R&B that was fully present in the 50's, 60's and 70's; Perhaps Three Circles' finest hour comes with "Sharks," all open chords, hushed percussion and vocal quivers. The lightest touches of feedback, distorted guitar solos and angelic back-ups make it a candidate for song of the year.
Having performed with the likes of Frontier Ruckus and The Verve Pipe's Brian Vander Ark - plus a Daytrotter session under their belts - Steve Leaf & The Ex-Pats have put new meaning behind the old adage, that you can knock one over with a feather. With the expertise of their gentle sound, they can break your heart and mend it again, usually within the same track. Three Circles & A Speaker is one of Chicago's strongest releases of 2014, and the only one make trepidation so enticing.
Download: Steve Leaf & the Ex Pats