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

Track Of The Day: Turkish Delight – ‘Spin’

“What would you like best to eat?”
“Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty” said Edmund.

If, like me, you grew up in the era of the Sunday teatime adaptation of the Narnia saga, then the words Turkish Delight always have a certain power, bringing to mind scenes of intoxication, mental confusion and seduction. Whether the band of the same name caught the BBC’s version whilst hanging around early ’90s Boston, they’ve admitted in interviews that the CS Lewis novel was the original inspiration for the name. And like the White Witch, the gift that the band bring is simultaneously familiar and threatening, warmly rocking but with an artsy cool.

Now, over twenty years since the band split, DIY label Reckless Yes are reanimating their back-catalogue with a re-release of debut Tommy Bell (1996) and second album (1998), on one double CD: bringing the band back – Aslan-style – all in one package. It’s the label’s assertion that the band are as relevant and fresh as they were in the ’90s and, as someone who’d never heard of them until very recently, it’s hard to disagree.

Taken from Tommy Bell, ‘Spin’ is a perfect introduction to Turkish Delight’s welding of art-rock and now-wave DIY sensibilities. That monotone bass-y rhythm you hear throughout? That’s ‘the can’, a “a home-made, electric bass-like instrument made from a bucket, a pole, and strings” which sounds somewhere between the skiffle broom and something from a bad (ie. good) sci-fi movie. Leah’s vocals switch in and out of English with the lilting “I’d rather be a spinster / I’d rather spin” – a defiant, subtly feminist, statement, whilst still also being punningly wry. Drums rattle around while spectral sharp and piercingly howling guitar lines rotate throughout, with verse and chorus largely being dictated by a shift in power rather than an expected telegraphed shift in chords.

‘Spin’ is sinister, daft, experimental and ultimately, pretty fun. And the same is true of the video: typical of its time as a piece of ’90s video art, showing individuals spinning in stop-motion black and white, intercut with footage of the band both playing the song and playing the fool. Not only is this an insight into the Dada world of the group, and lead singer Leah Callahan in particular, but according to interviews it’s evocative of the experience of seeing them play live, with costumes and silly antics a prominent feature.

Tommy Bell is a mishmash of agit art and indie rock with aspects of found sound and the experimentation of jazz and noise – with all that’s promised by ‘Spin’ on there, and more. At fifteen tracks it’s also a mammoth of a debut and shows a band in full fettle, right from the off. Howcha Magowcha is a more streamlined sophomore effort, which Leah has said “shows off the band’s maturity”. Taken together, they demonstrate the brave new frontiers of post-grunge indie, a world where art and music could be treated as synonymous and simultaneous activities. Often described as Thurston Moore’s favourite band of the time, Turkish Delight stand out as uncompromising and truly independent pioneers who left two lightning rods of LPs. Listening to them back-to-back is like poking around an old wardrobe, before stumbling, confused and maybe a little frightened, into a fascinating new world.

Tommy Bell and Howcha Magowcha are both out now, via Reckless Yes, and available both digitally and on CD.

John McGovern
@etinsuburbiaego