David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo! in Dallas. His music reviews have previously appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, ICE magazine and the Dallas Morning News.
Ten years ago, being labeled an “indie” band was a badge of credibility – it was worn proudly by unsigned artists who refused to compromise their sound and in many cases, rebuffed million-dollar offers from record companies in order to pursue their dreams on their own terms. But today, the term “indie” has become diluted. Many bands have left major labels to form their own record companies – only to have them distributed by those same major labels. And webcam videos have blurred the line between independent artist and viral flavor of the week.
In an era in which style is once again trumping substance on the charts, we need an underground band that understands the difference between amateurish charm and white-knuckle integrity, an act that epitomizes the sneering essence and stubborn righteousness of rock ‘n’ roll. We need Leatherbag.
Leatherbag frontman Randy Reynolds moved from Houston to Austin six years ago in hopes of escaping the fallout of a failed marriage and the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. He has deliberately hovered under the radar in a city built on buzz, putting out 10 releases in six years that find him maturing from a twangy Dylanesque troubadour to a gale force to be reckoned with. Backed by an ever-changing lineup, the prolific Reynolds releases music when he has something to say, and while it matters to him. He often doesn’t wait until he can afford to press CDs, choosing instead to sell or give away his songs online.
Last month, in true indie fashion, Leatherbag courted confusion by issuing two separate Internet-only releases on the same day. One is called Patience, a free EP of seven songs bashed out in 48 hours, while the other is titled Yellow Television, a $9 album earmarked as the official followup to 2010’s acclaimed Hey Day. Consisting of nine songs clocking in at barely over 30 minutes, Yellow Television may seem short compared to the average CD, but its brevity only makes it more bracing.
Echoing the low-budget, high energy rumble of the Velvet Underground and early Elvis Costello, Yellow Television mashes together jagged guitars, pummeling rhythms, and bleating saxophones – this provides a raucous yet melodic backdrop for Reynolds as he rails against the absence of sincerity in “Modern World,” dismisses the frantic, Foursquare-fueled desire to be everywhere all the time in “Imitation Generation,” and refuses to romanticize the past in “Waxing Nostalgic.”
Whereas Patience, with its fuzzy guitars and purposely over-modulated vocals, sometimes feels like it’s straining for a punk sensibility, Yellow Television rocks with a cool confidence – the cleaner sound sacrifices none of Reynolds’ howling urgency. “Love is dead and so is rock ‘n’ roll,” he sings in “Imitation Generation,” pausing just long enough before adding “or so I’ve been told.” It’s a seemingly throwaway line that winds up defining Leatherbag: At age 31, Reynolds doesn’t claim to have all the answers – but he recognizes there’s a big difference between being suspicious and being cynical, between being a wide-eyed dreamer and trying to stay hopeful in a sometimes cold, insincere modern world.