PREMIERE: Leah Callahan – ‘Smell’

You may know Leah Callahan as the lead singer of Bostonian art-rockers Turkish Delight whose albums were re-released in 2019 by UK label, Reckless Yes; or from the post-punk act Betwixt; or even shoegazers The Glass Set. But now she has shared her first solo album since 2003’s Even Sleepers, Simple Folk. Whereas Even Sleepers was a bossa-nova slice of late night acoustic, Simple Folk (which will be self-released next month) takes Leah back to the beginning. Full of big instrumentation and confessional lyrics, it’s nine songs ‘tackle over-consumption, environmental ruin and elitism’ as well as recounting Leah’s “myriad fears and personal failures”, and takes its musical cue from the British pop of her childhood in the ’80s.  

Following a request from Leah herself, we’ve chosen ‘Smell’ as our standout from the album. A sprightly 3 minute pop-punk romp, with a choppy, repeating guitar riff, its lyrical content is about as direct as it comes. “You smell…” echoes Leah’s voice, “like money, with a forked tongue”. There’s not much in the way of complexity here but it’s a kind of raw, anti-capitalist poetry – “Your silver keeps whales away” (a reference to the extinction threat being faced by the species in the North Atlantic).  Throughout, the lyrics point the finger at those who want to smell “real / Not like the Earth”, who give “dirty looks” in hotel lobbies and “look the other way”, providing they have their cash. 

Using scent as a kind of indelible mark against those who harm the planet and the humans who live on it is a pretty neat conceit – mind you, so is enveloping those lyrics in the hammer and nail of a three piece garage band. Multi-instrumentalist Alex Stern is responsible for much of the backing on the album and it’s possible to hear Brit-pop influences in some of the bridges between verses, when the drive of his guitar and the percussion switches into a performative flick. This is a rock song, primarily though, and it’s that underscoring wave of riffs that gives ‘Smell’ the extra power that its lyrics deserve. Machine gun drums switch in and out of the top line to rattle this one into the listener’s head throughout.

In some ways, this sound and style is not particularly evocative of the album as a whole, but that ability to wear many masks is one of the hallmarks of Callahan’s career. Indeed, in some ways ‘Smell’ is probably closer to ‘Spin’ (from Turkish Delight’s debut Tommy Bell) than any of the other tracks here. But despite the sophisti-pop Style Council leanings, there’s still a nuance and intelligence to Callahan’s approach to pop: with the titles of ‘1997 Again’, ‘I Wish That I Had Never Met You Music’ and ‘A Woman of Few Things’ giving some indication to her experiences of the industry. Perhaps most wry of all is the fuzzed out cover of Mary Hopkins’ ‘Those Were The Days’ – always an oddly grim no.1 hit from 1968, here turned inside-out but retaining its Eastern European sonic roots.  

Simple Folk is neither ‘simple’ nor ‘folk’, by and large, but the several meanings of its title reflects a complexity that has been redolent throughout Leah Callahan’s career. ‘Smell’, meanwhile, shows that, some thirty years on from the days of Turkish Delight, her senses are still intact.

Listen to ‘Smell’, for the first time, here:

 

Simple Folk, the new album from Leah Callahan, is set for release 22nd March. Pre-order here.

John McGovern
@etinsuburbiaego

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