January 18, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 3
Leaf it Be
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs... and Leaf sees nothing wrong with that
by Randall Brown
I used to know this guy who fancied himself a real cutting-edge, punk-rock
thinking person. To this end, he formulated his own unique brand of cultural
criticism he wore brainy-looking faux eye-glasses and drank a lot. Somehow this combination of habits led him to a stunning dismissal of one of the most significant acts in rock history. His off-the-cuff summation was something
to the effect of "The Beatles? Feh."
Since, at the time, I thought this friend of mine was undoubtedly hipper than me, I felt right oddball not understanding his disdain. Heck, I'm younger
than Beatlemania, but I still managed to grow up with the idea of "air, water,
Beatles" stuck in my head as far as pop music is concerned. So when I walked into Leaf's not-so-secret headquarters recently, it was refreshing to learn that plenty of other folks under 30 remember (and respect) Paul McCartney's
pre-Wings band. The wall-to-wall Beatles posters, and an impressive piece of stained-glass created in the images of John, Paul, George and Ringo, tipped me off immediately. As the saying goes, everything old is, indeed, new again.
But Leaf is no retro act, despite the more granola-esque assumptions some folks made about their name early on. Nor are they a "junior" version of fellow Beatles fans Superdrag, though that's a comparison they take as a
compliment. The name comes from an in-joke from their teenage years, the
explanation of which lies somewhere in the "You had to be there" category. It's a simple, straightforward name for exactly that kind of band four nice boys playing not-so-quirky, not-exactly-melancholy power pop.
Singer/guitarist Matt Allen proudly explains the band's core philosophy: "Every single one of our songs goes verse-chorus-verse-chorus-end."
"Sometimes we stick a bridge in there," adds guitarist Rick Tiller. "We're not really a show-off band, trying to show an extreme amount of 'talent.' It may be simple to do, but it gets the point across."
This focused aesthetic goal leads to a bevy of solid, heavy-guitar pop songs.
Their hooks are properly hooked and their pro-smooth three-way harmonies hold on to just that right touch of gruffness. Bassist Jay Daniel and drummer
Jeff "Squid" Ballard keep up a tight and groove-healthy rhythm, with sonic nods to the Jesus and Mary Chain. Somewhere along the line, they pull the
Beatles' classic pop essence through the punk and post-punk filter, coming up with an essentially modern rock a lot of bands pass over for the bright and shiny stuff the next aisle over.
The JAMC nod comes out particularly in Tiller and Allen's feedback duel in the song "Beam." Their twist-and-turn textural assault adds a volume-tasty
dimension to the rhythm section's simple deception. What this means in layman's
terms is "Shut up, Beavis, this rocks."
Song titles like "Beam," "Pedal," "Limerance" and "Circles" might suggest lofty, almost New Age, themes. But as with their band name, it just ain't so nothing too awfully cosmic here. Their songs are largely about the myriad
failures of boy-girl relationships.
"One of the things about our music that I like is that we're so sappy," says
Allen. "It's all about getting dumped on."
"Exactly," says Daniel. "The 'I'm the victim' route."
"The sensitive male route," agrees Tiller, "except none of us have ponytails."
"I'm not a sensitive ponytail man," clarifies Allen, "but our songs are like
'We're the victims, we've never done anything wrong.'"
"Needless to say, it's one-sided," says Tiller.
"Wait a minute," says Ballard, in a moment of good-natured dissension. "I don't even know the lyrics. I think it's really kind of happy and poppy."
"They do sound happy," concedes Tiller. "But if you listen to the lyrics, it's not so happy."
Despite, or perhaps because of, this kind of open and friendly kind of debate,
the Leaf sound is definitely a team effort. Their group dynamic makes me think of the recent documentary series which depicted the creative power plays and selfish bickering that typified the Beatles' demise. It doesn't look like Leaf, in their sonic simplicity and personal candor, will have a problem in that area.
"There's no one songwriter who writes everything and tells everyone else what to do," says Tiller.
"Before you came over tonight, we had to stop practice and have a fifteen-minute
bitch-fest," says Allen. "We're pretty lucky because we all get along so well, but we do have to bitch. We have to vent."
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