Stay Epic is the fourth full-length release from Boston-based quartet, Dear Leader. While I'm usually drawn to groups with strong and dynamic frontpeople, Dear Leader's Aaron Perrino (lead vocals, guitar) is particularly captivating. As the former frontman for the seminal The Sheila Divine (TSD), Perrino established himself as a purveyor of rock-n-roll operatic singing, much in the Roy Orbison - Morrisey - Matthew Bellamy tradition. Moreover, he hails from my hometown, although he has operated both TSD and Dear Leader out of Beantown, much like several other Boston bands with Buffalo roots, such as Tugboat Annie and The Push Stars. Nonetheless, Perrino wages a perpetual artistic war with the place of his birth, like so many poets, painters and performers before him. That spirit is once again infused, anew, in Stay Epic.
The ten-track set hails this theme at its precipice with "Rust Belt Ballad," a Mellencampian up-tempo lamentation on the recurring inability of places like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland to claw their way out of devolution, but non-specific to any, and certainly could be understood as including the Rust Belt's new frontier in places like New Orleans and Atlanta. He evokes this spirit by crooning:
"We're hanging by a string, and loosing patience..."
Beyond Perrino's recurring references in his "dust bowl ballads" is a seething liberalism that he has been unable to contain on any of the preceding Dear Leader offerings. Prospective listeners should not be surprised by these tendencies, as the group proudly describes its sound as "politically and socially charged anthem rock" on its Myspace page. Fortunately, it produces a hard-charging direction to their best work, heard on this collection on its second track, "The Blue Print." After setting the stage early with illusions to "the cost of corruption" and the "appallingly seductive" modern age, the group – guitarist Will Claflin, former Tugboat Annie bassist Jon Sulkow and drummer Paul Buckley – launches into an irresistible chorus hook that is both sweeping and grand. Dear Leader's U2-meets-New Order rhythmic/synthesized sound is the perfect vessel to propel Perrino's soaring vocals aloft, and its not hard to miss as the sound gets louder, the vocal impact becomes even more pronounced. There is nothing fragile in the offing here, and when Perrino warns of Generation Y's tendency to "loose rock-and-roll," its apparent few recording artists today would have the chops to not only deliver the line, but write it, as well.
Another can't-miss on Stay Epic is buried deeper in the collection, but finds an interesting symmetry between Green Day's American Idiot/21st Century Breakdown work and the more accessible elements of the Arcade Fire, such as "Intervention." Lurching forward with a Sex Pistols-style riff, "Indifference in the Age of Decline" is pure rocket fuel, where Perrino derides both social media where "no true words are spoken" and a world where there "are no heroes and no shrines." Its among the most spontaneous and combustive-sounding output Dear Leader has produced. Meanwhile, even the most cursory glance at the titles of some of the other tracks leaves no doubt as to the groups intentions, with cuts bearing headers such as "Barbarians," Empires," "The Napoleon Complex" and "Young Gods" making bare a effort focused on deep and pervasive social commentary.
Among the most notable evolutions in Dear Leader's sound through Stay Epic is witnessed through the spread of orchestration across at least a half dozen tracks. While the inclusion of string parts – likely synthetic here – plays a somewhat predictable role on the album's slow and mid-paced songs, it serves as a propellant for the more driving tunes like "The Blue Print" and "Shimmer." If there is a drawback of the album, the tracks of the loud and fast variety are scattered throughout the compilation, and it could use one or two more, with all due deference to album pacing and artistic vision.
Come for: "The Blue Print"
Stay for: "Rust Belt Ballad"
You'll be surprised by: "Indifference in The Age of Decline"
P.S. If you really want to hear some transcendent rock-and-roll singing, check out "Glacier" off Dear Leader's second effort, "All I Ever Wanted Was Tonight," especially at the track's zenith as Perrino creates a vocal tidal wave matching the song's lyrics.