NO ROOM AT THE INN - Leadfinger (Citadel Records)
The odds were stacked against Leadfinger delivering two killer albums in a row but only a fool would have laid down their readies against him. Here's 11 songs of blues-rock swagger with classic influences, all processed through Stew Cunningham's personal musical blender.
Those influences are fairly evident here so let's kick a few around. "You're So Strange" and "Gimme the Future" show "Let It Bleed"and "Exile"-era Stones touches, especially in Chloe West's wonderful backing vocals. There's a call-out to the late Rory Gallagher in the credits and you could read his guitar playing into any number of the songs. (If you don't know Rory or his pre-solo band Taste, go to Google and make a beeline for a solo album called "Jinx". That is all.)
There's a big dose of Groovies pop here too while "The Other Ones" gives the most obvious of nods to the MC5 before walking around in its own skin. You could go on, but these songs do a pretty good job of standing on their own two feet. The band's sure-footed confidence and Cunningham's soulful vocal, and highly lyrical guitar-playing, underline the strength of the songs.
There's a quotient of mid-tempo rockers like the stinging "Cruel City" (which could have easily sat in a Brother Brick or Yes-Men set list) and "It's Much Better" the most prominent, but Leadfinger aren't afraid to step outside the boundaries. "Segue Three" is a haunting instrumental that leads into the Celtic-tinged title track. Tour narrative "The Lonely Road" delicately builds to become a muscular rocker.
If you're looking for trademark Leadfinger guitar, go to "Gimme The Future". The lyrics aren't the only thing referencing the Stones here; Stew's playing on this one leans to the Mick Taylor rather than Keef side of things.
"The Wandering Man" is a widescreen effort that would demand airplay in a more enlightened world. Ultimately though, "Pretty Thing" is the real pop star in this lot, chiming in just past the album's mid-point and commanding you to lighten the fuck up. "Don't Think Twice" is a bright closer that recalls Big Star's chiming guitars.
The production is free of studio flummery with vintage gear the basis for a well balanced twin-guitar attack. You'd go a long way to hear an album that sounded like this - 30 years backwards to be precise - but that's the point. To go forward, you sometimes have to look over your shoulder. Needless to say, you should make a beeline for the Citadel mail order shop and make a copy yours. - The Barman
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RIPPED GENES AND ANALOGUE DREAMS - Leadfinger (self released)
The leader hails from an old coal mining town called Helensburgh so it's fitting that these seven songs are supposedly cast-off rocks from the band named Leadfinger. Excess to the forthcoming album's requirements all but one of them may be, but they collectively make an EP that's anything but throwaway.
Leadfinger - the band and the man - are well established in their nook of the rapidly shrinking Australian underground. If they're the last people left in the room you'd trust them to stubbornly resist the order to turn off the lights. These songs crackle with the conviction of a band entirely comfortable in its collective musical skin. They swagger and they rock and they're a lot of fun. From the gritty (and larynx-testing) "Poor Man's Boogie" to the strident power popping Replacements-flavoured rock of "Pretty Thing", to the testosterone honesty of "Behind The Wall Of Sleep", these are songs to crank at maximum volume while cruising down the highway bound for the beach.
There's a lot of late '70s British working man rock here with no excess flash. You even get a legit buried treasure in the cover of Chris Wilson's "All The Action", a long-lost follow-up to "Shake Some Action" that's delivered with deference and aplomb. Political comment with a seasonal twist ("Left Wing Yule"), gnarly pop-rock ("Laser Love") and a evocatively mellow sleeper ("Indians") all show off Stew Cunningham's distinctive guitar and rich voice. The band is up to the job. Trust men on this one.
The physical product is limited to 100 copies and you'll find the last stock here. As they say in the classics, once they're gone they're a download. Fuck that for a joke. Get in before the EP's reduced to a mere MP3. - The Barman
WE MAKE THE MUSIC - Leadfinger (Impedance)
The portents were there that it was going to be a very good album but Leadfinger's "We Make The Music" makes a convincing claim for greatness in the space of 49 minutes. From the Who-like title track that opens it to the Hendrix-tinged finale, "Beside Me, Against Me" (with its shades of "Castles in the Air") this is a bona fide Australian classic.
Over two prior albums and an EP, Leadfinger (the band) has established a secure identity. It's still a vehicle for the songs, vocals and guitarwork of Stewart "Leadfinger" Cunningham but the latest line-up has solidified and grown with the benefit of some solid if not overly frequent touring. Leadfinger is confident bluesy rock with a few surprises, and steers well clear of being pigeon-holed as another variation on Detroit ramalama (although the same energy levels are present.)
Glasgow-born, Wollongong-reared Cunningham cut his teeth in Proton Energy Pills, a forerunner of a wave of bands from the industrial city south of Sydney. He went on to knock around with Asteroid B612, kick 'em out with power trio Brother Brick, survive The Yes-Men and have a ball with the Replacements-inspired Challenger 7, so he's done the yards. Leadfinger began after a lay-off from music, originally manifesting as a low-key and moody blues outfit but slowly morphing into a rock band. A couple of line-ups later, here they are with mid-'70s British rock influences mixing it with some understated pop hooks and some less obvious inspirations from closer to home.
Cunningham's always been an inspired songwriter but there's more depth to his work over the last 10 years. Cases-in-point are the lyrical self cross-examination of "No Reflection" and the childhood glance-over-the-shoulder of "Fourteen." Musically, this album shows he's even less afraid these days to mix things up with dobro, mandolin and 12-string mixing it with power chords and riffs.
Leadfinger's guitar-playing is as fiery as ever - especially on rockers like the promotional track "The Price You Pay" - and sits well with the playing of six-string partner Michael Boyle. Lyrically, the song's a backtracking throiugh the obituaries and war stories of Stew's past bandmates, some fallen but others still stabnding. It's as honest a song as you'll hear in a month of Sundays and played with a blazing fury. If you don't believe me, download it for free here.
Fans of sustain might want to check out the outro of "No Reflection" but there's also a subtlety in "Untitled" that shows a band familiar with all the right places to leave spaces.
"Eucalyptus Blues" picks up where "Exile On Main Street" left off, trading sparse licks and handclaps for powerful dynamics . The brooding "Anthem For The Unimpressed" would sit comfortably on a New Christs record ("I don't care what the fuck you do to me") so it's no surprise to see that band's guitarist-keyboardist Brent Williams credited as one of the people involved in the recording process.
He might have coined the term if not invented the genre but if Pete Townsend still recorded powerpop songs like "We Make The Music", the world would be a much better place.
Vocally, Cunningham saves his best for last with a sterling performance on ""Beside Me, Against Me." Stew's production is translucent and powerful and some credit's probably due also to Big Jesus Burger Studio, one of Sydney's best recording rooms.
Fans of his earlier stuff will take to it with relish but it will win converts as well. Plonk down your heard-earned. This is worth it. - The Barman
RICH KIDS - Leadfinger (Bang! Records)
If Stewart "Leadfinger" Cunningham's metamorphosis from razor-riffing Detroit-inspired rocker to introspective alt.balladeer threw fans of his previous bands, his shift to tough-talking bluesman with glam overtones might suit them better.
That Leadfinger's been soaking in some mid-70s Brit blues rock influences is self-evident, even if he and his band hadn't covered Taste's "Bad Penny" on this album, issued on Spanish label Bang! Records. Slide guitar has prominence throughout. These are mostly mid-tempo rockers, all devoid of big production or studio tricks. The result is an album that's immediately accessible and comfortable, without being cliched.
Cunningham thinks "Fade Your Brilliance" is the best song he's ever written. There's a bit of competition in those stakes but it's up there. Announced by backward masking, it's the opening track and starts low-key before cranking up a gear and staying there. With a poppy chorus and a stuttering bassline, it's a statement that you're in for something different to most of what's gone before.
"Devil's Holiday" is straight-forward boogie rocker with juicy slide guitar while "Thin Lizzy Is On My Mind" is a full-some tribute to Phil Lynott that Gary Moore might wished he'd written. It's got a swing and a mighty central riff that requires fist-pumping and singing along, given a sticky carpet and a dozen beers.
The "Rich Kids Can't Play Rock and Roll" could have come across as class warfare if it wasn't so true and it's entirely appropriate from a band that's never attracted anyone looking remotely like a major label A & R man.
This is being written 24 hours after seeing Neil Young and the buzz is still warm, but the majestic "Show You I Care" puts Leadfinger in a stadium setting with scorching guitar that could give ol' Shakey a run for his money. There's a cranking riff that kicks it up a gear that could have walked out of a Brother Brick recording session. Contrast that with the song that follows, the album mid-point blues instrumental "Andy Farrell Blues", for a handle on how well the band thought this record out.
"Keep On Searching" is reprised from "The Floating Life" and sits well in this less skeletal form while t he Saints cover, "Ghost Ships", gets a makeover and a faster tempo and sounds pretty fine in these hands.
As is the way in rock and roll, the album's somewhat historical with an entirely new, four-piece line-up now treading the boards (bassist Wayne Stokes having re-located postcode and multi-band drummer Steve O'Brien allegedly retiring.)
Let's call this a worthy addition to the Cunningham catalogue. - The Barman
THROUGH THE CRACKS - Leadfinger (Music Farmers)
Dunno if it's a spring clearance of some spare recordings or a pause before the next long-player, but this eight-song EP from Wollongong trio Leadfinger hits the spot. My only hope is the title isn't prophetic - and of course you can make sure it isn't. More on that after I tell you why it works.
In a word: songs. A few of these belong to bandleader Stew "Leadfinger" Cunningham and the balance to other people. Some if not most should be familiar but they all work to a degree. Good players being on board helps. The Leadfinger engine room of bassist Wayne Stokes and drummer Steve O'Brien unobtrusively but effectively do their work. If it sounds rustic, the recording was laid down in a farmhouse on the New South Wales South Coast and then finished in Stew's home studio. Uncluttered and not embellished.
Cunningham's chops are the prime attraction and he's in a bluesy frame of mind with slide guitar replacing the frantic attack of Brother Brick, Asteroid B612 and the Proton Energy Pills.
"That Rock 'n' Roll Sound" is a sterling opener, a stand-out from Challenger 7's one and only album of ragged, Replacements-style powerpop. The lyrics could be about you or me and they still ring true, a decade or so after they were originally recorded (with Cunningham a member.) Leadfinger do the Someloves' sublime "Melt" justice, and form there we're into more contemporary territory.
"A Beautiful Sound" is fruit from this band's tree (a Cunningham-O'Brien co-write) that bodes well for the future album; "Edge of Suburbia (Urban Dub)" is an update of a song from the bandleader's own sparse "The Floating Life" where the current band played more of a supporting role.
I was going to consign "Hip Shake" to the ranks of the redundant cover song (even the Stones didn't manage to make it stick on "Exile", arguably their greatest album) but the band imbues it with a hypnotic feel that works also because it's wedged hard up against an outright rocker ("Making Up For Lost Time".) Karl Webber (The Pink Fits) contribnutes some mean Jew's harp. "See You Tonight" has been done a couple of times before and suffers for the absence of Bill Gibson's backing vocal this time out but it's nonetheless a keeper.
The odd pup in the litter is the closer, "Bicycle Man", another reprised song from "The Floating Life" . Flugelhorn and trumpet mix it with a touch of tonal variation to cook up something quite surreal.
THE FLOATING LIFE - Leadfinger (Bang! Records)
If you're at The Bar I'm sure you know who Stew "Leadfinger" Cunningham is. A real legend of the Australian underground leading or taking part in such fantastic bands as The Proton Energy Pills, Brother Brick, Asteroid B-612, Challenger 7, Yes Men.
After 20 years of giving us screeching riffs and extraordinary songs, Leadfinger has finally decided to make his first solo album. It's titled "The Floating Life" and it has just been released via Spain but available around the world through Bang! Records. Wrapped in a luxurious 'digipack' "The Floating Life" is an intimate, private and personal album.
Beginning with the beautiful cover photo, capturing the quiet after the storm of the endless Australian landscape, one senses the local ambiance of this album, recorded in perfect isolation in his home studio, located in the most southern suburbs of Sydney.
For those used to the bludgeoning riffs that were characteristic of Leadfinger (with Brother Brick & Asteroid B-612) or the solo fragments of power pop from Challenger 7 they may be surprised by this album - as I, myself, was pleasantly surprised.
"The Floating Life" is a sincerely inspired record and pulls back the veil revealing the intimate side of the best Australian songwriter of the past 10 years.
Many moods co-habit the threads of this album: as in the first song "I Went Looking" - an acoustic guitar solo - and the more personal, and the splendid "Edge of Suburbia" which is delicate and intimate, having an aroma of Blues. A celebration of solitude, as a place located in the soul: "I got lost in suburbia/Hanging out on the edge of the world/They can't find me in suburbia/I'm at the end of the world.." sings Leadfinger.
In "Thin Lizzy" Stew returns to the six-tring electric power chords to give us the gift of another fragment of his winning power-pop, this time dedicated to one of the idols of his youth: Phil Lynott.
With "The Sydney Way?", Leadfinger gives a bit of gas to a song tied up with a piece of quivering guitar. "Bicycle Man" is a very fun acoustic piece which prepares the ground for the title track "The Floating Life"- inspired by the work of the Australian poet John Forbes. Even this seems a potent declaration, deep from the soul: "I wanted to survive, I wanted to get high/I wanted to invite...".
"The Philadelphia Ruse" opens a skylight, with a splendid guitar phrase, but it is the last track "The Music Had the Last Say" which gives us one of the most inspirational moments on the album. An intense song, in its use of delicate electric-acoustic, dedicated to a friend (and adventure companion from The Yes-Men), Sean Greenway, who prematurely passed away in 2001.
Another precious thread on an intimate and splendid album. - Roberto Calabro'
They said we wouldn't like it - and they wuz wrong...
The trumpet might get blown the most about the louder and wilder stuff, but Kuepper, Dylan and Young (or Ed, Bob and Neil to me) have a special place on the shelves of the I-94 Bar. Leadfinger (aka Stew Cunningham, fearsomely talented and loud rock and roll guitarist in his other guises) draws inspiration from the same places - and a few more - to spin up a beguiling, often stunning debut solo album.
There's a raw and stark ambience to this album, a reflection of the place it was written and recorded. Helensburgh's a semi-rural town on Sydney's southern fringes and home to Leadfinger. It's a former coal-mining town on a coastal escarpment, charming in its own way and surorunded by sometimes stark outcrops. Walk out the back door of half the houses and you could be in the middle of some of archetypal Australian bushland, yet still within 20 minutes of civilisation.
Recovering from extended writer's block and (mostly) armed only with a steel-stringed guitar and his own voice, Leadfinger made the most of his surroundings and gradually worked this album from the ground up. Reflections on being on the fringes of the mainstream mortgage belt ("Fringe of Suburbia", "Back in the 'Burgh") blend with a paen to a teenage hero ("Thin Lizzy"). Not many albums talk about urban street poets (John Forbes) and characters from American literature ("Boo Radley") within a few breaths of each other.
Production is basic and homespun (the family dog features in one track and is rumoured to be lining up for a cut of royalties) and this suits the mood perfectly. Here's an album to spin on a winter's afternoon on a back vernandah to take the edge off a looming sunset or see in the night. The songs are great, sometimes quirky, but always with a presence and ambience that's of a place of its own making.
"The Floating Life" will demand close attention. It swerves off the beaten track in its moments of delicacy ("The Music Had The Last Say") and introspection. Never forced ("So In a Hurry") it sometimes veers into full-band raunch ("Thin Lizzy") but that isn't the character of the whole.
Open your ears and prepare for an interesting ride. - The Barman1/3
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