With eyes like big brown marbles and his dyed blond hair slicked back, Daniel James Leopold looks like a man whose songs would teeter at the edge of madness. And while some of his recordings do give a nod to the heyday of Black Sabbath, his band Leopold and His Fiction also draws from folk, blues, R&B, and other calmer sounds.
Leopold hails from Detroit, which he claims is the source of his “hard-edged, raw sound”. The band, which has had several iterations of players (with only Leopold himself as the common thread) is now based in Austin.
The first album 2006 was self-titled. As is typical of indie debuts, there’s nothing slick about the production of Leopold and His Fiction. “Promise to Reality” has the edgy, asymmetrical rhythm of a Doors tune. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Leopold (then called Daniel James) was living in California at the time:
That rough edge works to the band’s advantage on “Miss Manipulation.” The steel guitar, the train-like perpetual motion of the strummed rhythms, and the minimalist vocal melody have a time-traveling effect. The song sounds like a hobo stopped in a recording studio before hopping the next freight car:
The simplicity of that first album is partly the result of there being only two official bandmembers: Leopold and drummer Ben Cook. Ain’t No Surprise (2009), the band’s second album, shows a new level of originality. Bassist/singer Micayla Grace and drummer/keyboardist Jon Sortland had stepped in when Cook left, helping to give the group a distinctive sound. But Leopold had not left his roots behind.
“One for Me to Find” opens like a folk tune, with a gritty, sincere vocal and strummed acoustic guitar. The first verse gets you ready for it to be deep and personal: “It’s hard to make amends with myself and my dead friends.” There’s that train effect again, this time on the snare. It’s a pensive tune, with simplicity that conjures up Johnny Cash, if he’d been a tenor:
Unfortunately, Leopold’s tendency to get stuck in a melodic rut continues in this album (the first time it was quirky, but it gets old quickly; only Morrissey can pull that off). Still, the lyrics are always thoughtful, as demonstrated in “Tiger Lily,” which comes across as a sketch for a short story: “Ah, Miss, you leave on my nightstand / Turquoise and a feather from your hair.”
The mournful three-guitar opening of the instrumental track “Adalenia,” which closes the album, is hard to categorize. The buzzing synth drone underlying the staggering plucked strings takes you to another world. It builds, dissonant and disconnected, into something ferocious:
With the third album, coyly titled 3 (2012), the band undergoes a stunning change of sound, thanks largely to a shift in Leopolds’ guitar playing. Suddenly they’re true rockers. You can hear it right off the bat in “Lion Share,” which opens with an electric guitar lick and a distorted vocal that screams more ZZ Top than Woody Guthrie.
But the folk tinge has not disappeared entirely. “Blood” has that repetitive, contemplative sound from the first two albums. Now the arrangements are more complex, disguising the limited scope of the melody:
The whole band sported a hipster look for the videos promoting the album 3. The slow blues “I’m Better Off Alone.” Based on the template of classic R&B torch songs, this song has lyrics that defy their outward meaning — of course he doesn’t want to be alone, but he has to pretend. So it’s appropriate that Leopold’s grunge guitar solo at first defies the song’s tempo and style, but then blends back into it. The only problem with this song is that Leopold’s voice doesn’t have the pitch range or emotional flexibility to really sell the melody and words:
The most recent album, Darling Destroyer, came out in early 2107. Leopold seems to have decided to celebrate his wilder instincts. Ozzy Osbourne meets Jeff Beck in “Cowboy,” a thrash song with classic blues harmony underlying it. (Warning: The video gets a bit bloody.)
The band’s biggest (only?) hit is “I’m Caving In,” originally off a 2012 EP, Waves, and then rereleased on Darling Destroyer. The song was picked up for an episode of the Showtime TV series Ray Donovan. Leopold proves he has a bit of rock crooner in him, too – maybe some Roy Orbison influence. He has described this song as autobiographical. The new cave-in was caused by the weight of being not only a new father, but also a newly recovering alcoholic:
“It’s How I Feel (Free)” has early punk influence (think: The Clash), both in the vocals and in the straight-ahead smack-the-table-top drum pattern. This new side of Leopold feels authentic; he’s tapping into something he needed to express. And the virtuosic guitar solo, even if it ends too abruptly, has clearer articulation and phrasing than you find from the average frontman.
Yet Leopold and His Fiction’s penchant for more traditional American styles is not lost forever. With all the drum rolls and brass backing, the song “Flowers” might summon up the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, but at its core it’s just another R&B heartbreaker: