The Leisure Society play erudite, wickedly catchy, smart chamber pop and art-rock. Frontman Nick Hemming’s vocals are gentle but resolute; his tunesmithing is brilliant and his influences reveal him as someone who’s listened widely and deeply to decades worth of literate rock. The references fly fast and furious on the band’s new album Alone Aboard the Ark: the Kinks (not surprising, since Ray Davies sought them out to record at his Konk Studios, where they cut the record more or less live), Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Pulp, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, obscure but sometimes brilliant 80s bands like the Wild Swans and Shelleyan Orphan. The album is streaming at the NY Times, of all places. The British press – always with a chip on its shoulder, more than willing to misrepresent in order to win an American audience – has compared them to Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists and the like, which is ridiculous, since the Leisure Society’s hooks hit you like a Rolls-Royce with no brakes and their lyrics are also strong.
The album’s opening track, Another Sunday Psalm, contrasts a breezy backbeat acoustic guitar-and-piano pop tune with Hemming’s pensive lyric:
Can you keep this pose too many other cats are craving
They’re polishing their claws and saying in fifteen words
What took me years to hang my name upon
A Softer Voice Takes Longer Hearing sets a cynical, morose lyric over twangy Lynchian bolero pop: “Every hour is a cavalcade to be gazed upon as it slips away,” Hemming muses. Fight for Everyone, inspired by watching the 2012 Olympics, kicks off with trumpet from Mumford & Sons’ Nick Etwell, then the period-perfect, drolly oscillating 80s synth kicks in. Faux Rick Wakeman riffage underscores the relentless bombast and pressure that elite athletes have to endure even before the starting gun fires.
Tearing the Arches Down sardonically mingles Ziggy-era Bowie and late T Rex glam, like Edward Rogers in a particularly 1972 moment. The album’s best song is the Sylvia Plath homage The Sober Scent of Paper, Botanica noir filtered through the misty prism of 70s Britfolk – a free download in exchange for your email. All I Have Seen blends northern soul with Ronsonesque glam, building to a mad crescendo, while Everyone Understands is La Bamba as Botanica might have done it, a bitter sendup of a drama queen in 7/8 time. “What do you get for all this freewheeling? A pirouette in a castle of sand,” Hemming grouses.
Life is a Cabriolet (Edwardian British for convertible) juxtaposes bouncy swing with a doomed cynicism, followed by the similarly cynical cabaret-infused chamber pop song One Man & His Fug. The Romany-flavored title track of sorts, Forever We Shall Wait follows a Jarvis Cocker-style party animal’s desperate trajectory up to a big circus rock ending. Gay overkill doesn’t set in til the last two tracks, and if homoeroticism is your thing, you’ll like those songs too. Big-studio 1970s production values and lush yet terse playing from multi-instrumentalist Christian Hardy, violinist Mike Siddell, cellist William Calderbank, flutist Helen Whitaker, bassist Darren Bonehill and drummer Sebastian Hankins propel this magnificent beast. A lock for one of the best albums of 2013.