It would be easy to get snarky about someone being named the “Best Country Singer” in Los Angeles. When you think LA, the only horses you picture are trucked in and out of studio back lots. Even my home of Colorado, a “real” western state, is more known for John Denver than for any “true” country music. But Southern California has that legacy of the Laurel Canyon Sound, and this year’s documentary, Echo In The Canyon, along with its soundtrack, has renewed interest in that sound. So what better time for a young LA-based artist (and LA Weekly’s Best Country Singer of 2018) to carve herself a deeper niche in the Americana scene? Leslie Stevens’ latest LP, Sinner (Thirty Tigers), aims to do just that.
The album starts off with “Storybook”, a piano- and acoustic guitar-driven tune suitable for a road trip. Stevens, with a voice reminiscent of a higher-pitched Patsy Cline with a little of the mystique of Lindi Ortega thrown in, sings of her own limitations – “I’m not you valedictorian/Got no flux capacity nor DeLorean” – but she can still sniff out your secrets: “I’ve seen the past you’re hiding.” “12 Feet High” is 70s AM radio at its best, and Stevens’ soaring voice adds to the road-trip feel, elongating the “darlin’” in “Darlin’, I’ve been thinking/I’ve been drinkin’/I’ve been sinkin’ low.”
“Falling” is one of the tracks on the album that mixes Stevens’ Cline-ish voice with something a bit alternative – it might remind ‘90s-era listeners of Mazzy Star and lead singer Hope Sandoval. It’s a piano-driven country ballad with a cosmic feel. “Teen Bride”, on the other hand, is a straight ‘50s throwback, with its clean electric guitar sound and a scandalous (for the time) topic.
The album is at its best with a couple of its more unusual songs. The title track is a simmering mix of keys and lap steel topped with Stevens’ languorous vocals (again, that vaguely cosmic feel). She warns of her imperfections – “I’ve not the saint you’ve been hoping for/I’m not the blessing at you door” – but finds that same mix in all of us: “There’s bad in the best of us/There’s good in the rest of us.” “The Tillman Song” recalls the former NFL player killed in action in Afghanistan. The music alternates between manic and somber, reflecting both Tillman’s life and death and the wreckage that his surviving family had to deal with. More importantly, the song fleshes out the late Army Ranger well beyond the ‘Murican poster boy he’s been unfairly reduced to: “You shouted, ‘This war is illegal, and I believe in love’/As bombs fell in Baghdad and the hawks came for the doves.” Not exactly a Hollywood ending, but It’s a deeper perspective that, whether it be applied to news headlines or music writing, we need to hear more of.
Sinner was produced by Johnathan Wilson. Additional musicians include James Gadson (drums), Jake Blanton (bass), Keefus Ciancia (piano), Nate Walcott (organ) and guest vocals from Jenny O on the track “Sylvie.”
You can purchase Sinner here: https://shop.bandwear.com/collections/leslie-stevens-shop
And check out tour dates for Leslie Stevens here: https://www.lesliestevensmusic.com/tour