Silver or Black? Leadfinger deliver solid gold
Silver & Black - Leadfinger (Golden Robot)
Yeah, well, I may have been away for a while. Haven't had a lot of time to listen to music. I mean, for a few months, music was that occasional thing in the background - which is not the way to enjoy music. There are (in fact) only two ways: live and in your face, or turned up loud and in your ears. Any other way, the stuff can only hint at a timeless upland of dancing and carrying on like a horny dog at a wedding, rather than the entire emotional brawl.
So turning on Leadfinger's “Silver and Black” is a bit like a starving, dehydrated man tottering into one of those “45 beers on tap” pubs with an Irish heart-clogging cook, accommodation, someone else's credit card and a couple of months to kill.
In between other things, I was able to catch Stewart Cunningham on Big Daddy K's 2RRR Saturday night radio show a week or so ago. Cunningham was his usual thoughtful and low-key self.
"I'd rather play up the road to a hundred people, but that's what I'm used to ... you don't tend to think outside that, because the rest of the world isn't on your horizon ..."
Well, no. While this is Leadfinger's first LP in six years, many of us have eyed Leadfinger with the sort of “why haven't the majors discovered this band and put them into stadiums across the USA” expression, Cunningham is pragmatic. I mean, who the hell had heard of Willie Nelson before he suddenly got megafamous? Which isn't a bad comparison now I think about it…
Cunningham commented (again, on Big Daddy K's show): "I went from brown hair to grey in 6 years!" Where are the majors when you really need them? Busy suing some poor burger shop owner for playing the Rolling Stones without paying a fat fee, I guess.
It's worth remembering that it's now 2023, and Leadfinger have been together since 2009 - with the same lineu-p. I often ponder the astounding truth that highways around the world are not littered with the corpses (or unmarked graves) of that one irritating band member ...
Alright, sure, some get dumped by the roadside while the gang burn off into the distance, but the thing is, bands often fight amongst themselves, while very few get battered to death with a mic stand or a bottle of Jack. People say bands are like marriages - well, okay. But more marriages end with one or other battering or knifing or burning or otherwise slaughtering their former beloved, than do bands. And there have been a lot of bands in the world. Maybe marriages should be more like bands.
However, I seem to have wandered from the path.
Leadfinger's “Silver and Black”, then. It's not just that it's their best LP. Long after Cunningham and Michael Boyle have swapped their guitar strings for ivy on a tombstone, even after Dillon Hicks (drums) and Reggie Screen (bass) have gone below to tend earthquakes in the fundament, “Silver and Black” will remain one of those classics which teenagers discover and thrash with delight (admittedly, this will partly be an effort to be something other (anything other) than their dreary olds, but ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Velvet Underground. Iggy and The Stooges. Led Zeppelin. The Beastie Boys...).
I can't really tell you why “Silver and Black” is Leadfinger's best LP, not with precision. I simply don't have the words. Every time I listen to it ... I can't write. I get taken away.
Alright. I've turned it off and I'll make a stab at it, but look. Go listen to it. You don't need me to tell you anything else.
So, Leadfinger have come down with a serious case of the harmonies in lockstep with their guitar-drenched 1970s roots. What? well, take the first track, “Dodged a Bullet”, which manages to nod to Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd with a reminder that Alex Chilton was better than both by miles.
The subject matter can be assumed to refer Stewie's close brush with death a few years ago, and his subsequent journey of patience and grim determination. But the song itself is like all the others here, just a glorious celebration of life, an investigation into all our emotions in the kind of everyday situations which we all face ... and the harmonies... well, they ain't the Beach Boys but that's not what they're aiming at. Hell, if you must have a comparison of quality, think the best Died Pretty, or The Eastern Dark. Though Leadfinger are a different bucket of bats. For example:
We are never happy with what we got
We want the whole damn pot
And I’m left to ponder what is the point of it all
It's right out of the pub, isn't it? You can hear the man speaking. It's truth. Yet, in context of the song ... No, I won't go on. Go listen.
Leadfinger sound richer and cleaner than many of the records which inspired them to take up arms, yet they still have that analogue warmth. I gather they recorded “Silver and Black” live in the studio after many, many rehearsals.
No, I won't go over every song ... I'll be typing for hours.
Take “Sleeping Dogs Lie”. What a bloody great bass line, just perfect for that slashing, skipping guitarwork. And:
Let the sleeping dogs lie
You can look yourself in the eye and learn to say goodbye
So, yeah, something of a journey of self-discovery. But it's only as personal as you make it. You could say, "hey, it's about Cunningham's life, not mine..."
But it ain't. It really is about us.
Take “Girl on a Bus'”... glorious weaving guitar chomps while harmonies soar and peer down like cherubs...
Take “Nobody Knows”, with its elegantly lurching twang welded to such a sweet, sweet sounds ... a sweet wah echoing down the line ... I usually turn my nose up at sweet sounds, but you know that... not this time.
And nobody knows
Only you and you alone
Can find your way back home
Such gloriously throwaway feedback, which I bet took ages to get right. So hard to control, feedback, if you're not using it just for skronky effect. And there's nowt skronk about Leadfinger.
Take “Here Come the Bats” (the last song on the CD).
But you don't really think about any of that when you're experiencing that lovely guitar interplay, those glorious tones wrapping around each other, melting in and out of feedback, delicate yet rough like hawsers, the powerful delicacy, with Cunningham's vaulting vocal. If you're not dancing, you want to. In between being awed at the gorgeous backing vocals, the pretty plucking, before the anvils are swung and the band crunch like bones in a scrum.
Make no mistake, boys and girls, “Silver and Black” is a crossover LP with a vengeance. These men have pushed themselves hard with the harmonies, worked damned hard on a clutch of damn fine songs which feel easy and deceptively familiar. You'll swear you've heard this LP somewhere before. When you were a kid, perhaps. But no. That's part of the especial appeal of Leadfinger - they're so good you can't believe you've never heard them before, because they seem to be so much a part of you.
The songs? Well, band leader Cunningham has a romantic streak four traffic lanes wide, a droll sense of reference, occasion and vivid beauty. And let's stay with this hopeless romantic, this child of the bush. The press release states: "Many of these songs hint at Cunningham’s close call and explore the exhilaration and challenges of surviving, but also uncannily touch on the zeitgeist of our times."
If you're paying attention to the lyrics, a couple of songs will have you reaching for the tissues; “Find the Words”, for example, would not be out of place on one of Nick Cave's better LPs of the last 20 years. If it weren't for the strong, wire-wrapped guitar lines which transcend the dreadful truth in the song, that is.
I mean, you can extrapolate that this describes Cunningham struggling with how to tell his wife that he had cancer ... it's all so dreadfully familiar. How many of us have had to somehow say a horrible thing to their partner?
And this, from “One More Day”:
I feel my life’s a failure
I don’t wanna die before my time
I don’t wanna say I’m sorry
Gimme me one more day
As to the LP's title? Cunningham: "... silver was all the metal I had to deal with in hospital, needles, and black was what I was coughing up with lung cancer ... " Fuck's sake.
I mean, sorry, every cloud has a silver lining. Which may be an overworked cliche but it remains true nonetheless.
"You can go through bad things but you can get your eyes opened at the same time to really appreciate the good things in your life ..."
Be grateful for what you have...
And here's the kicker, folks. As with every great artist, like Sinatra's “'Wee Small Hours” or Wait's “Blue Valentine”, you're touched by the apparent familiarity that the singer has with your own experience. The music, the songs, they resonate long after you and I have gone.
“Silver and Black” ain't nothing like Waits nor Sinatra, of course. Too many gnarly '70s licks. So many harmonies (did I mention the harmonies?) that just sound so natural (and as we know, that is not always the case).
The entire band have put such an enormous effort in to “Silver and Black” that Cunningham's throwaway line, "I think this might be the last one!" is more a reflection of exhaustion, of working on one project with such focus that the next one cannot even be contemplated.
So I'll throw a challenge back at Cunningham and his band of determined men by quoting his own lyric (from “You Oughtta Know'”:
We started doing this band 10 years ago
We’re still together now, not sure where we’re going
You know that we won’t quit... you’re my danger and my failure
Woe oh oh you oughtta know
After writing all this review, I decided to ask Stewart Cunningham a few questions.
- - - - -
Come on, Stewie, you can't call 'Silver and Black' ‘just a rock album’.
Cunningham: Yes, but it is just a ‘humble’ rock album musically, on the surface at least ... although there’s depth and other layers there if a listener has the patience and commitment.
At times I feel rock is a boring genre to be trapped in. I aspire to so much more but that costs money and time … the sounds in my head and what I imagine the songs could be, are far beyond just rock … but you work with the materials (and people) at hand and of course time was of the utmost essence in this case.
Limitations are good though. Once I started to do the overdub and vocals, I thought of getting other instrumentation involved and taking it further but I remember making a conscious decision to reject that idea. I don’t have the energy I used to have as well, and managing people takes a lot of energy. So I stuck to the core (electric guitars, bass and drums) and focused on going the extra miles with the vocals/backups rather than bring in other flavours. Worked out good really.
I don't want to ask you questions about all the things which have been happening in your life which may or may not have led to the songs - but about the intents behind them. In a way I can see hints of your life in the background, but the texts themselves have a much broader, more universal significance. (Call me peculiar)
Cunningham: You're right on the money here … and I’m really glad to hear you say this, it’s how I wanted the album to be received … I realised mid-way through that I didn’t want to be too specific about my own experience so I purposely rejected and tweaked lyrics along the way, to make the meanings more open so any listeners could relate the songs to their own experiences.
Wrote a few songs that were a bit more upbeat and out there as well. I didn’t want it to come across as a sad or heroic album specifically about my struggle … who am I that people would want to listen to something so personal? Those who know me and what I’ve been through will read the meaning and stories in some songs and know how they relate to me and that’s okay too …but I pursued the idea of it being obtuse enough that it would potentially have a broader appeal and significance. I want other people to enjoy it and relate to it in their own way.
You're almost like ... MOR but with quality songs rather than a load of the usual songs about mush ...
Cunningham: Sure, we do try for that depth... there are a lot of bands you could listen to once or twice and then pass on ... "
Yeah. I mean, truthfully, I do have a little difficulty with Leadfinger, because it's not where my listening usually takes me. I mean, you're not 'pushing the art envelope', but focussing on the songs ...
Cunningham: Yes, that's right. I can understand your difficulty. I mean there's a bit of a retro thing to what we do, a nod to the past, but we hope there's a freshness to the songs and what we're singing about. And we've gone back to our basics, accessible rock guitars and harmonies.
I think it's that freshness that has always drawn me in not pastiche - you're not walking the usual rock cliches ... you grew up in the 1980s, that clearly had an effect on you.
Cunningham: Definitely! I loved the underground bands of the 1980s - Sunnyboys, New Christs, Lime Spiders, Exploding White Mice ...the sound of those records was phenomenal, they were so punchy, evocative, loads of emotion and high quality song-writing.
Interesting that I don't hear that 'swampy' sound that permeated the 1980s underground, too.
Cunningham: When I was younger, before I started learning to play, I listened to a lot of Tav Falco, The Cramps, The Scientists and got into it, but once I started learning guitar, I was more interested in Ramones, high-energy stuff – that’s what I took in when I saw bands live, absorbing a more controlled high energy base ...'Silver and Black' is the LP we should've made first!
I love the lines, ‘You're my danger and my failure ... you're my danger and my saviour’. Should be a Ronettes song!
Cunningham: That lyric/song is about my life in bands. Here I was again making another album?? Wow is that good, bad, scary or just silly? … all of that … it’s how I felt about it at the time.
Now look. What I really want to know is the band's responses when you first introduced them to these songs. Was there laughter? Or what?
Cunningham: It actually takes the other guys a while to get their heads around the songs, so the response is often more delayed than you’d think …often I don’t get feedback 'til way after the recording is finished. Also quite a few of the songs took shape in the band room so they were part of that development.
At the start I could sense a lot of doubt, a lot of uncertainty that we would be able to do this. It was disheartening but understandable, I just had to ignore that and wait for them to hear what I was hearing. When I started to feel confident in the material, I knew they would eventually too …and once that happens, the train leaves the station and it’s unstoppable with everyone on board, even though there were some big obstacles ahead we didn’t know about. Having said that, a few songs clicked pretty quick ('Sleeping Dogs', 'Stop Running Away' and 'One More Day') and you could tell everyone was digging it … after so long, everyone was just happy to rock out again. That’s why we made a rock album, it feels bloody good to play rock music!
You remember than comment you made on Big Daddy K's show? "I'd rather play up the road to a hundred people...’
Cunningham: Yeah. Look, I'm content with that ... after a while you don't tend to think anything else is possible ...
I guess that's such a big part of the LP, you could easily enjoy it without really knowing the inspirations behind the songs. It's a solid, old-school classic rock LP without the boring bits.
Cunningham: Interesting … I was talking to Mick (our other guitarist) a few months ago and he confessed to me that when we were in the recording process, he was really worried it was possibly going to be a really sad album about death and he felt uncomfortable with that idea at the time.
The point he was trying to make by telling me such a heavy thing is that he feels the total opposite to that now that it’s finished. He honestly believes 'Silver and Black' is the best thing we’ve ever done and far from being an album about death, it’s much more than that, it’s an album that’s reflective of the times we live in. It’s really great to hear that he listens to it and understands it so deeply.
I love 'Here Come the Bats'. Such a great lyric!
Cunningham: It’s about the meaning of songs and whether people even care about the words … communication, art … is it possible to express what I’m going through and what’s the point? That’s why it’s so open-ended and vague … I wanted a song that was difficult to nail down a specific meaning so the listener had to develop their own meaning.
I wrote this when the bushfires were on here - early January 2020. I was very sick at the time and I was only able to walk 500 metres to the park at the end of my street where I’d sit on a bench and rest and then walk back.
I’d do that walk every evening at dusk but a strange thing was happening…everywhere in NSW was on fire and smoke ridden except it seems, here where I lived (near the coast just south of Sydney)… so a huge colony of bats had worked it out and taken refuge in the small valley behind where I live, it’s part of the National Park so it’s just lots of big trees and it has a really shady and cool aspect during the day. This had never happened before; you rarely see a bat around here!So I’d sit there pondering the meaning of my life and feeling sorry for myself, wondering where I’m going with hundreds of bats flying all around in the dusk sky. It was surreal and I found it inspiring and fascinating. Like me, these animals were taking refuge here in this little corner of the world. Hiding away but still doing their bat things coming out at dusk ha ha. There was something in that for me.
Everyone is gonna take this song to be about Covid or Wuhan or something cos of the title, which is ironic given it is actually a song about the relevance of words/lyrics etc. The bats have gone now ... just visiting. - Robert Brokenmouth
After an enforced hiatus of four years, Wollongong’s Leadfinger have returned with “Silver & Black”, an exultant record that presses strong claims for Australian Album Of The Year.
You may say that’s a bold prediction with 2022 only 15% done, yet it’s safe to say that there’s a legitimacy and candidness to the songs on “Silver & Black” that few others could match, be it in 2022 or any other year for that matter.
After four years of adversity, that Leadfinger have returned at all speaks volumes for the collective character of all involved. None more so than main-man Stewart “Leadfinger” Cunningham, whose resolute determination to carry on after a battle with cancer, to now deliver an album that surpasses 2016’s critically acclaimed “Friday Night Heroes” album, is an achievement that can’t be overstated.
Poignantly placed as the album opener is the frank and personal “Dodged A Bullet”. The lyrics are self-evident, with Cunningham laying bare the last four years in over four minutes. Catchy tune too with a tasteful guitar solo and liberal dose of harmonica.
It’s a leaner and tougher guitar-based attack on “One More Day”, highlighted by a driving riff, thumping drums, a big chorus and melodious guitars throughout. The lyrics will resonate with anyone who has ever been faced with their own mortality. For those that haven’t, there’s a message for all to make every day count. Killer song.
“Sleeping Dogs” is powerpop/garage rock supreme. Short and sharp, super catchy chorus, harmony vocals – much like the way the Sunnyboys or vintage Gurus used to write ‘em. Extra points for the cowbell.
“Stop Running Away” is upbeat power-pop highlighted by a catchy chorus and sharp guitars, with a big Cunningham vocal and harmony vocals too. I don’t think I’ve heard Cunningham sing better than he does on this album. Vocally he is going to places I’ve not heard before, really stretching it out. In fact, the entire band is a well-oiled machine with the musicianship a cut above most. The weaving melodic guitar lines of Michael Boyle are the perfect counterpart to Cunningham. With his added vocals, Boyle’s contribution to the Leadfinger sound is significant.
“Nobody Knows” draws a line back to the band’s Detroit, Birdman and post-punk influences, although this is more reminiscent of classic era New Christs than anything else. The band throw up a wall of measured guitar-based rock here with added reverb, an infectious chorus and searing solo. Bass player Adam Screen and drummer Dillon Hicks holding down the backbeat with plenty of power and just the right touch of swing.
“The Fall Of Rome” is a monster. Superbly crafted rock with an opulence all its own, this has a ton of hooks, duelling guitar interplay and memorable chorus – the distant harmony vocals adding their own atmospheric quality. The radio-hit if such a concept still existed. Outstanding.
“Find The Words” broods with intent, the reverb and vocals working well together. Absolutely love “You Oughta Know’” with its late 60s Stones swagger and chunky riff. This one has a compelling groove, a big sing-along chorus and an inedible hook that frames the story of Cunningham’s life long journey with the guitar, a decade with Leadfinger (the band), his love for rock ‘n’ roll and optimistically, the road ahead. In short, the ballad of Leadfinger – and another green tick.
The CD version of the album (it's also available digitally and as a three-sided vinyl LP) availnale closes with the sublime “Here Comes The Bats”. It drifts in with jangling echoey guitars and bass lines that sit up front before building up to an extremely catchy riff. This song ebbs and flows neatly around a hard hitting chorus and is overflowing with melodic sensibilities.
It’s a quiet-loud-quiet tune with guitars that echo cleanly, and Cunningham belting out the vocals from deep within, “Does anybody listen at all ? Do the words count anymore?” You bet they do. This reminds me a lot of the late Nikki Sudden (that’s a good thing), and is a song I cannot find sufficient superlatives for. A masterpiece.
Many of the songs on Silver & Black are connected via songwriter Cunningham’s often reflective lyrical themes exploring real life challenges, of determination, resilience – and without sounding cliché, triumph over adversity.
Top to bottom – every song on “Silver & Black” is a winner, each rich with colour and diversity. If you thought “Friday Night Heroes” was good, “Silver & Black” goes one step further, and stands as Leadfinger’s magnum opus – and it should rightfully open new doors for the band.
After more than four years – Leadfinger are back – rejuvenated, reinvigorated, and armed with a stunning collection of new rock ‘n’ roll songs. Special when lit and then some. Get on board. - Colin Gray