Lead Mule – Lead Mule EP

Lead Mule EP

Back in November, I gave a glowing review to the debut album from a young rock and roll band from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia named Rain Over St. Ambrose. To my knowledge, neither the band nor the album (Truth for News) have been covered by many other outlets south of the Canadian border, but it was one of my top albums of 2012 and is one that I enjoy immensely and listen to frequently. The lack of American coverage isn’t much of a surprise considering the band hails from a tight-knit community that supports artistic endeavors of its fellow neighbors. Area bands mostly venture out to surrounding provinces to play Canadian Music Showcases and occasional festivals like Halifax Pop Explosion, but the majority of these bands proudly reside on small, regional independent labels. The excellent, little label Rain Over St. Ambrose calls home is Acadian Embassy (the label’s founders Trevor Murphy and Josh “Pinky” Pothier play in their own impressive bands and serve as producers – more on that in a bit). Soon after reviewing the ROSA album, I interviewed the band’s frontman, Cory LeBlanc, and he espoused his admiration for a fellow band from the outskirts of Yarmouth: Lead Mule.

It’s fitting then that I’ve been fortunate enough to find a comparable thrill I discovered on Truth for News in the debut EP from fellow Yarmouth four-piece Lead Mule (pronounced “led,” not “leed”). The compounding joy derived from repeated listens to each band comes when you give yourself over to the immediacy of the playing and the depth of songwriting with something to worthwhile to say. They don’t wring their hands obsessing over experimentation or genre pioneering, and that’s another reason they’re less likely to get covered by the hippest blogs and sites.

Lead Mule (Mat Bridgeo on vocals/guitar, Marc Durkee on bass/vocals, Travis Darby on drums, and Sandy Ackles on guitar/vocals) tout themselves as being “at the fore of an imminent nouveau grunge movement, putting a new spin on the melody-laden guitar rock of the early to mid 90s.” It’s a fitting classification, and they’re no novices in the sound either. The band’s name is taken from The Lead Mule, a Short Beach, Nova Scotia jam space that burned down years ago that used to house concerts featuring bands that would spin-off to launch notable acts like Wintersleep, Holy Fuck, Jon Epworth & The Improvements and The Stanfields. Bridgeo, for one, is a veteran of that very scene and played with members who would go on to form Wintersleep.

Lead Mule

The five songs on Lead Mule EP call to mind bands and a genre you were likely passionate about for a time but maybe haven’t listened to in years. Those influences are the sorts of bands whose reach has been vast. Unfortunately, up-and-coming bands who have followed in the footsteps of their heroes have too often had the notoriety of being heralded by tastemakers for a few months before abruptly being kicked to the curb for allegedly being second-rate imitators on follow-up albums. It’s a blogger narrative that’s occurred too many times to count for much of the past decade, and it’s a shame. The music played passionately by Lead Mule and the aforementioned bands comprise a genre many notable critics and bloggers casually write off as “derivative,” “stale,” or even “uninspired.” Some criticisms of the sort hold their water, but such high-and-mighty reductive criticisms are often, simply put, a crock of shit, and they’re terribly far from the truth on Lead Mule’s debut EP.

Chances are you may have heard about a new rock documentary generating a squall of buzz right now called Sound City. The doc, the first feature from rock and roll acolyte and fan favorite Dave Grohl, amasses seemingly anybody and everybody who’s had a hand in making formidable rock and roll records at any point in the last thirty years in the hopes of rallying support for a famed, now-defunct Los Angeles studio. Sound City exists in an age when traditional means of making records and marketing music is viewed as hopelessly antiquated and naïve. [Spoiler: this reviewer has sided with Dave Grohl on most any music-related concern for the better part of twenty years, and he’ll likely continue to side with Dave Grohl and his fellow rock and roll brethren over much of the too-elitist blogosphere bloat for years to come.] My apologies if a Sound City discussion happens to seem like a lengthy non sequitur for an album review for a modest band from Nova Scotia with mostly regional appeal, but I assure you a few listens to Lead Mule EP will make my point absolutely clear.

The goal of Sound City is to celebrate real people making red-blooded music in brick-and-mortar studios to deliver pieces of art branded with genuine human DNA, and it sets out to illuminate how such music is the indisputable underdog in the current, unpredictable digital revolution. The five songs of Lead Mule EP (“Spilt Milk,” “Sunporch,” “Out West,” “3rd Degree,” and “Absence”) embrace that very spirit – now seen as anachronistic or embodied by short-sighted reactionaries – to the absolute fullest over the course of the record. It’s the sound of a tight, sturdy band of four passionate guys, ripping through great-sounding rock and roll songs with discernible human emotion in the lyrics and playing. The striking result is that of band sounding like their having a hell of a time playing muscular pop-rock rooted in the influences they love, and they take pleasure in not conforming to electronic gimmickry or phony pandering.

The urgency of the grunge-indebted playing is suitably intertwined with the sharp lyrics brought to the forefront of the mix. Credit Bridgeo for being unafraid to sing and growl audibly, letting every word ring true instead of hiding in the rowdy racket behind him. The maneuver pays off, as the lyrics are neck-and-neck with the instrumental firepower on display permeating every moment Lead Mule EP.

“Spilt Milk” kicks it off, and it may be Bridgeo’s finest lyrical achievement. Here, Lead Mule champion the spirit of the very themes the heart of Sound City. Bridgeo sings, “Perpetually dig too deep / Keep up with the neighbor’s technology / Blood and sweat goes into this / Blood and sweat turn into debt!” At this moment, the band hunkers down and bashes out a rousing harmony simply made of a series of “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” while the music rips down the open road. “Things could be so much worse than they are in your frivolous fantasy / On and on with what you want / On and on it never stops!” It’s an urgent message befitting of our times that find too many people grappling with manufactured depression while struggling to keep up with the Joneses in all the most fleeting ways. It’s not a stretch to apply the sentiment to artists diving headfirst into the hottest trends of the day – hoping to feel the blogosphere love, only to get tossed aside in a few months when the next trend arises.

Lead Mule follow the lead of “Spilt Milk” with “Out West” at the EP’s halfway point. The song is a lit fuse that opens with an undercurrent of lament for the hardworking middle class of the 99% in today’s corporate environment. “Leaving home / Comfort zone / Promises that perks / Twice the pay for only half the work / Kiss the wife / Say goodbye / Give the kids a hug / Dad’s got a plane to catch / Three weeks on, one week of / A pile of bills to pay / Get a move on, can’t afford to stay / No one is going to care how tough things are back home / That’s why they put you there.” The refrain howls, “Higher-ups are having a field day / Driving you out of town / And, I’ve had it up to here!” “Out West” is a bitter indictment of the current state of things, and most of us have felt the brunt of this narrative one way or another… likely more than once. Lead Mule doesn’t play it out as a heavy-handed protest song though; they bash it out with tension mounting, acutely placed instrumental breaks, and a mountain of a chorus. It’s an earned release from a three-minute rock song that genuinely has something to say, and Lead Mule execute it sharply.

“Third Degree” is the EP’s first single, and it’s a hard-charging beauty with delicious pop-rock riffs, a chugging bass line, an addictive “whoa-whoa-yeah” chorus, and one hell of a bridge that builds tension like bumping up the hill of a rollercoaster before stomping down on the pedal for a gleeful solo flanked by a barrage of “woah-woah-yeah!” for the climax.

The closer, “Absence,” finds Lead Mule doing what they seem to do best in the first half of the song: blasting their way through a killer rock composition in rousing fashion (Darby’s drumming, in particular, is fantastic here) that makes it impossible not to starve for the opportunity to catch Lead Mule in a live setting. Things take an unexpected turn in the back half thanks to an immediate tempo shift, a wicked chord change, and Bridgeo’s haunting delivery as he sings a positively eerie break-up lament: “Wanna bury you now But your body’s in town / Too much time has passed / Time to spread out the ash.” An expertly placed, melancholic violin enters the proceedings while the band bashes away and howls with abandon. Important to note, the wonderful production (by Lead Mule and the Acadian Embassy founders, Trevor Murphy and Josh “Pinky” Pothier) captures all the sublimely dark tones and the sense of monumental release. “Absence” is a definite winner, and it’s a hell of a way to cap off the EP, especially given the adventurous composition and top-notch production.

The song that has won me over time and again, even more so than any others, is the delightful track “Sunporch.” Finding Bridgeo chronicling a dream he had while sitting on a sunporch, he etches perfect, illuminating detail into the life around him in people he hasn’t seen in some time, while the band plays a chugging rhythm rounded out by hand-claps. “Sunporch” pays off beautifully with big hooks, a giddy pop-rock delivery, and a prevailing sense of lovely nostalgia that gives it a genuine sense of wonder rooted in all its infectious glee.

If you’re looking for Auto-tune, club beats, and critical pandering, look elsewhere. Lead Mule rally around a time-honored spirit and the essence of a specific place – that of the lush, rural landscape on the outskirts of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia – to play the very sort of music they grew up loving that they and their friends celebrate upon hearing. These are songs that would get written off if they were ever heard (not that they will be) by the likes of Pitchfork and their ilk, because certain institutions rely on certain unwritten conventions – especially when those unwritten conventions are overly critical of any music that embraces guitars, classic rock song structures, and what is written off as an outdated genre.

The truth is Lead Mule (and their north-of-the-border, rock-and-roll-loving friends) fully embrace a spirit that is as essential as oxygen to many (Ironically, it’s not far-fetched to suppose Sound City, which is steeped in this zealous spirit, will likely earn rave reviews by the aforementioned outlets that criticize new bands that rally around the same very spirit.), and it’s a spirit that is the very essence of a killer album like Foo Fighters’ stellar 2011 album, Wasting Light, or a Pitchfork-approved album like Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory (approved likely because it was produced by indie luminary Steve Albini).

It’s always a curious thing to discover which genres and bands get heralded as the belles of the ball for years, which get written off as wannabes after a few months, and which get blasted from the outset. It’s a fickle process that generally reeks of double standards. Personally, the truest litmus test this reviewer uses when reviewing the value of any such music always comes down to the songs themselves, and Lead Mule deliver the goods with abundant passion over the course of five songs that consistently land somewhere between damn good and nearly great on their debut effort. They’re songs constructed from a rock and roll backbone, played mightily well, and are custom-built for habitual listening. Best of all, Lead Mule pull it all off with vitality. If I’m looking to nitpick for a fault here, I’m going to have to settle for merely saying I wish there were more tracks. The rock and roll spirit is alive and well in Lead Mule, and we’ll be hearing plenty more from them in the time ahead…if we’re lucky.


Lead Mule’s self-titled, debut EP is out now. You can find it at Lead Mule’s Bandcamp and www.leadmule.ca.

Stream / Download: Lead Mule – “Third Degree”

We're looking for writers and editors to join the team. Interested? Apply today!