The members of Lionlimb, Joshua Jaeger and Stewart Bronaugh, might to some of our readers look oddly familiar. These two highly talented musicians have already found a modicum of alternative fame as the backing band, both live and on record, of the writer of one of our past albums of the year, Angel Olsen. Joshua and Stewart have toured the world playing with Angel and hugely influenced the sound of her critically acclaimed album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness; however as with many backing bands, it seems to have driven their own creativity rather than stifling it.
Lionlimb are of course not the first band to go from respected backing band to artists in their own right, they are walking a well-worn path of musicians who’ve stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Before The Eagles became a band in their own right, the four members were already making names as sessions musicians and solo artists, it was only when Linda Ronstadt was recruiting a backing band that they first played together, and despite only playing one show with Linda, the four piece discovered enough chemistry to go on and form one of the most commercially successful acts of all time.
Before The Foo Fighters became a cross-breed of five-piece, world famous rock behemoth, and hiatus denying novelty act, they started life as the solo project of one-time Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. Whilst he recorded the album entirely on his own, taking it on the road required a backing band, Dave recruited his rhythm section from another Seattle band, Sunny Day Real Estate, who whilst never getting their commercial break through remain a well loved and critically acclaimed act in their own right.
When Bob Dylan made the controversial- although it now seems odd that it was ever seen as controversial- decision to ditch acoustic folk for “rock”, he had to find a band to match his new sound. That band were Canadian roots-rockers The Hawks, who would spend the next year touring the country; for the most part getting heckled by folk-purists, and taking copious amounts of Amphetamines. The Hawks would go on to change their name, to the what would now be considered un-googleable, The Band, and record both some of Bob’s most famous albums, and some spectacular ones of their own.
From Crazy Horse to The Wailers, The Funk Brothers to the E Street Band, a good backing band can go a long way to propelling a talented songwriter to their highest level. More than that however, they can often go on to produce something memorable, fabulous or at the very least interesting in their own right. Music’s unsung heroes are making a break for some much deserved fame of their own.
Lionlimb’s debut album Shoo is presented with the story of a labour of love, and well just labour. Main songwriter Stewart Bronaugh started the project in his native Nashville back in 2010, but had to put the project on hold to work as a day labourer in Chicago and San Francisco. Finding a break, touring with Angel Olsen, and a drummer, Joshua Jaeger, Stewart was able to return to the studio and resume work on the project. A Sixto Rodriguez tale for Generation Y, only with a much shorter period labouring and with considerably less weird South African fame.
Shoo was written in a three year period across multiple American cities, but it was only in 2015 that Lionlimb made it into the studio. Working with producer, Robin Eaton, the recording process was a deliberately different one. The band began by laying down the bare bones of the songs, largely Joshua’s frankly stunning drums, and Stewart’s piano. From those skeletal beginnings Stewart let his creative excesses run wild, he set about producing reel upon reel of ideas; working like a “screw you” to the record-it-live spirit of punk, he layered pretty much any instrument he could get his hands on. Saxophone, guitar, Fender-Rhodes, you name it Stewart put hundreds of different layers of it onto the tape. Having created a multi-layered prog-rocking onion, Stewart and Rob then began to peel back the layers, and shape the recordings into something that was both cohesive and listenable, but still laced with the ambition that formed it.
Discussing Shoo’s conception, Stewart has suggested a wide array of influences from Miles Davis to Schumann, Elliot Smith to Jackson Pollock. Whilst aiming quite so high in your reference points can often lead to disappointment, this is an album that for the most part lives up to them. The free jazzy drumming and sax embellishments definitely point the listener in the direction of Mr Davis, the versatile piano playing, could sound like a more modern Schumann, whilst the studio technique if not exactly Pollock’s drip technique, is certainly an intriguing and artistic way of working. As for Elliot Smith, well every other reviewer has already pointed it out, but Stewart’s vocal does sound remarkably, like Elliot’s, as much for his vocal inflexions as his overall tone. Like Smith he perhaps isn’t a natural singer, a little thin and reedy, but what he does have is an ability to impart emotion, and grandeur, to the words he sings. You find yourself straining to pick out his words, simply because he sounds like he means every one of them, even if perhaps the lyrics are not the albums strong point.
Where this album shines is the sheer quality of the playing; Joshua’s drumming is to non-drummers like us a source of pure amazement, how he manages to maintain a beat and structure whilst still putting so much emphasis and style into his playing is breath taking. On top of that he seems to float effortlessly between styles, hardly ever resorting to anything as dull as a straight forward beat, even on Lemonade where he starts off with a simplistic Lust For Life like beat, he adds fills and off-beats that catch the listener unaware. Hung might start off life in almost slow-motion as the guitar solo slowly unfurls like Pink Floyd, but the drums manage to be at once incredibly complex and gently subtle, Turnstile is a rush of jazzy cymbal flutters and snare crashes, whilst on God Knows he seems to sound like he’s constantly tumbling slightly behind the pace of the song, then rushes and catches up. If nothing else comes of Lionlimb, Joshua will surely have made a career as a session drummer of the highest quality, even J.K.Simmons’ character in Whiplash would surely be impressed.
Stewart’s playing too is stunning, we could (perhaps should) write entire essays about the acoustic qualities of the Fender Rhodes, and here he seems to tap into its full range of aural emotion, capable of sounding warm and jazzy, before a heavier touch results in a gentle buzzing distortion, it’s quite possible that any would sound better with the addition of one. Beyond our own personal “best instrument in the world” awards, he’s also a master at seemingly whatever he turns his hand to; the wildly excessive-prog guitars at the end of Ride, the churchy organ pulse of Domino, and the saxophone throughout, which is far more subtle than the instruments reputation would suggest. Shoo is a record that never sounds anything short of beautifully produced, the multi-layered instruments perfectly mixed so that at different moment the sound of different instruments leap out demanding the listener’s attention.
Shoo is an album that perhaps works better as a whole, a record to lose yourself in, and allow to gently work it’s melodies into your mind, that said it’s not without highlights. Wide Bed is a subtle, slowly developing beauty of a track, the Miles Davis influence to the fore, the drums a flash of rattling crash cymbals, the piano a rush of menacing echoing flutters, and the saxophone the sound of smoke-filled heartache, the guitars that sound like they’re constantly aching to take the song to some sort of resolution and bombast but are always reined in by the sheer emotive weight of the other instruments around them. Elsewhere the band’s first ever single Turnstile, still sounds just as great seven months on, there’s nods to the prog of Midlake, and quite possibly the album’s only obvious chorus, even the honking saxophone solo, which has more than a hint of “I’ve just stood on duck”, actually works surprisingly well in context. Turnstile is also probably his best lyrical dissection as he notes, “your love was a turnstile and I jumped it, your love was a habit and I fed it”, hinting at a bitterness but as he exhibits elsewhere on the record, he’s a songwriter who more often deals in questions and debates rather than straight forward emotional resolution.
Shoo is not a record that is likely to make any great commercial splash, it is a sound that’s decidedly out of fashion, but that too gives it a timeless quality; at various moments these songs could sit on records by Pink Floyd in the 1970’s, Elliot Smith in the 1990’s or even David Bowie’s latter output. This is a record that is more a labour of love, created because Stewart wanted, even needed, to create it, and it sounds all the better for it.
Shoo is out March 4th via Bayonet Records.