J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Return Trip:
The Leatherwoods - Topeka Oratorio


The Leatherwoods
Topeka Oratorio
(Medium Cool ; 1992)


The things you don't know sometimes.

I saw the Jayhawks play an acoustic show as a trio back in early 2002 - Gary Louris, Marc Perlman and Tim O'Reagan. At some point during the show, Louris announced that they were going to play a song by O'Reagan's old group, the Leatherwoods. They proceeded to play "Tinsel Town," a song I enjoyed enough to go out and track down the one and only (and out-of-print) album by the band. What I ended up with was an album that showed a forming songwriter beginning to hone the sound that would show up in his later contributions to the Jayhawks and for his own solo debut.

I'm not going to try and convince you that Topeka Oratorio is a landmark album, or even that it's really that amazing. The production hasn't helped the album to hold up very well. It sounds woefully out of time, with guitar effects that scream 'early 90s,' mostly in a very commercial sounding way. Any one of these songs could've been an also-ran on a proto-alternative rock station. But if you're familiar with O'Reagan's contributions to the Jayhawks, especially his gorgeous "Bottomless Cup" (from Sound of Lies) or "Tampa to Tulsa" (from Rainy Day Music), then you'll find a lot of recognizable territory in the Leatherwoods.

Essentially a two-man band involving O'Reagan and Todd Newman, the Leatherwoods were obviously a product of the Minnesota scene. Medium Cool records was run by Peter Jesperson, founder of Twin/Tone Records and former manager of the Replacements, and the album itself was recorded largely at Blackberry Way in Minneapolis, the studio where the Replacements' Hootenanny was recorded. But the 'Mats this ain't - the songs are slick, poppy, catchy and seem rooted in the smoother more commercial-pop ends of the indie-rock spectrum. What's amazing about the Leatherwoods is how much they resemble other rockier records of the time from Minnesota. Crank up the volume, distort the guitars a little, make the singing a bit sloppier and you've got Bash and Pop's lone album. "Proof Positive" could've been an even more able rocker in the hands of Tommy Stinson.

The album has a handful of gems that make it worth hearing - the aforementioned "Tinsel Town" being one of them. If anything could've been a radio staple, it's this song. Chugging lightly along beneath some nimble and simple singing by O'Reagan, it's a classic rock song. "How Can I Miss You" mines an updated version of the Byrds' guitar sound, complete with vocal harmonies, that turn it into a genuine and winning pop number.

"Dream World" is one of the songs that seems most tied into the time period - the guitar effect quivering and processed in a way that sounds a few years late, even for 1992. But that sound, dated as it is, can still work and in O'Reagan's hands, it's a winning ballad that is melancholic and affective. In some alternate universe, this was playing at someone's prom the night they kissed their first true love and kept their time-traveling son from fading into the ether.

Like I said earlier, Topkea Oratorio is one of those records that are interesting mostly as a time capsule of a songwriter's development. With a handful of truly winning songs and a lot of solid, but generic, filler, the Leatherwoods' one and only album is a fine cast-off from the early 90s - a gem hidden by the dirt of years and work-in-progress craftsmanship.

Rating: I(nteresting)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

The Leatherwoods - "Tinsel Town"

The Leatherwoods - "How Can I Miss You"

The Leatherwoods - "Dream World"

Find a used copy of Topeka Oratorio at Amazon.

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