Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons are in the final stages of making a new record at Excello Recording in Williamsburg. The gothic Americana rocker’s previous album Martini Eyes was quite a change for her, a sparse, intimate solo recording with just acoustic guitar and Leckie’s voice in allusively nocturnal mode. This album is a collaboration with legendary bon vivant/journalist/poet Anthony Haden-Guest, the first time Leckie has ever worked with material other than her own. Watching the band pull the songs together, it’s obvious that this is going to be a hell of a record. Haden-Guest’s lyrics are like his prose in that they’ve got his signature bite and sardonic wit, and they make a good fit with Leckie’s tersely mysterious, frequently plaintive melodies. This particular album features two-thirds of the Demons – guitarist Hugh Pool and bassist George Jackson – plus Matt Kanelos (of the Smooth Maria and Carol Lipnik’s Ghosts in the Ocean project) on piano.
Watching the band as they recorded Sunday afternoon, what was most impressive is that they were doing this live. Most people don’t realize that rock albums these days aren’t just full of overdubs: they’re cut and pasted. Much of the corporate music you hear on the radio doesn’t even have instruments on it: it’s completely computerized, right down to the autotuned vocals. And for a band that actually plays instruments, digital recording enables them to lay down just a single verse or chorus, punch in and fix the mistakes, and then copy and paste those parts as many times as necessary rather than actually playing the song all the way through. But Leckie is oldschool and she’s recording this album live, including her vocals.
And the band was on top of their game. In under four hours, it took them four takes to get a first track, two takes (either of which could end up on the album – the band isn’t sure) to get the second and three to get a third song. Leckie had them in her fingers: in nine takes, her acoustic guitar was flawless and so was her voice (although she mixed and matched different vocal interpretations as the band worked out arrangements). Ironically, the one mistake she made is going to end up on the album: on the first song, she jumped into a verse a bar early after an instrumental break, but the band followed her seamlessly. It seemed that Jackson and Kanelos were at least familiar with Leckie’s chord changes, but Pool was coming into this cold, yet he came up with parts and had them down in literally minutes. Haden-Guest watched intently and approvingly as the band fleshed out the songs.
The first one was Rudely Interrupted. It’s got a catchy sway and a sarcastic, apocalyptic theme, with lyrics that suggest a hip-hop beat. But Kanelos got his fingers into it and swung it, first as neo-Debussy, then as soul with gospel tinges and some of the Debussy as well. Jackson latched onto that and gave it a slinky bounce full of cool slides and an apprehensive walk down the scale as an approximation of a chorus kicks in. Pool got into the soul vibe in a big way, reaching into his bottomless archive of licks for a Memphis feel that managed to avoid being a wholesale Steve Cropper ripoff, including some neat harmonies with the vocal line at the end. A lot of bands need four hours for a single song: Leckie and crew had this one in the can, ready for mixing and mastering, in less than one, arrangement included.
The second song was Little Miss X, a snarky, offhand dig at an ingenue from out of town who suddenly finds herself in the middle of her fifteen minutes, “wearing Alexander McQueen,” as the chorus goes (for those who aren’t dedicated followers of fashion, McQueen is iconic in gay circles and was the first fashion designer to get a career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: one assumes his creations aren’t typically found at the back of the rack at the Salvation Army). This one’s a creepy waltz that Kanelos and Pool launched into gleefully and took in a totally noir direction. Both takes were flawless but considerably different. Kanelos gave the first one a lurid Henry Mancini noir feel while Pool went into reverb-drenched horror-movie territory and stayed there, over Jackson’s tensely steady, two-note pulse. The second was much more sparse, both the guitar and piano giving Leckie’s vocals considerably more space. It’ll be interesting to see which one they go with.
The last song was Bliss. This one’s a crushingly sarcastic, coldly perceptive vignette of an older couple who lost whatever magic they might have had decades ago, sitting across from each other in a restaurant and not saying a word. The same scenario could just as easily apply to a couple of yuppies texting and Facebooking, or for that matter, a couple of kids doing the same thing. Leckie’s carefully fingerpicked guitar parts are simple yet ornate, so to maintain that feel, Kanelos went back to wary Debussy mode. Pool sat out the first take and then decided that all the song needed was a few judicious washes of lapsteel on the chorus: he had those worked out down to a final, whispery filigree in less than ten minutes. Most bands would be thrilled to make this kind of progress; Leckie and her bandmates were nonchalant about it. This is how they roll. If the rest of the album is anything like this, it’ll be amazing.