They need more

Leopold and His Fiction are gonna be your boys

It's probably not fair to expect that if your duo goes bass free, if its rock falls somewhere under the crude banner of garage, and if your early riff education occurred in Detroit, you won't be assailed with comparisons to the White Stripes. It's even less fair if the best song on your debut pulls off the protoblues swagger and gnarly scale work that once made Jack and Meg interesting. But as applied to Leopold and His Fiction — the pairing of Motor City expat and current Russian Hiller Daniel Toccalino and drummer Ben Cook, formerly of Kentucky — that match is a little too neat. As Toccalino dryly put it to me the other week, checking in from a tour stop at the Sundance Film Festival, "There are garages everywhere."

Indeed. Toccalino and Cook — who have been playing together for three years, releasing one self-titled LP along the way — have their reasons for limiting personnel to two. Cook's training is in jazz, and as his frontman sees it, this has taught the percussionist to carry a heavier load — to artfully sub in where the bass is supposed to go. "He fills up a lot of the low end," Toccalino notes admiringly. This doesn't always come up on the album, on which songs are colored in by other instruments. But it's a central skill when it comes to Leopold's two-person live show, and the studio session drops clear hints in this direction. "Promise to Reality," a Doors-ish epic late in the record, is heated by a boplike boil of toms and kick drums.

Still, this is a jazz tactic being used in the service of rock. It's a way to launch a leaner attack without losing depth, which makes sense: Leopold's overriding urge is toward the primitive. Spare blues structures, ragged guitar riffs, and spent vocals abound on the LP, the last given extra wear by Julian Casablancas levels of distortion. This skuzzy bent can go several different ways. The trashed-up "Gonna Be Your Boy" — as opposed to your dog? — is the Stooges with the blues kept more audible. Yet — almost as if to even things up with his Kentucky bandmate — Toccalino can also twang out his melodies and head up a country and Southern rock path, as on the wide and glowing "Miss Manipulation," which evokes My Morning Jacket. The group may be at its best when covering a few scenes at once: "Mother Natures Son" feels like Iggy Pop up front with an Exile on Main Street–era Keith Richards on guitar.

There can be an itch, in supposedly bearish times for back-to-blues rock, to fetishize a band like this — to get giddy about the so-called honesty of its raw sound. To Toccalino's credit, he seems to have little interest in playing the ideologue or the prophet. He mostly just likes the rapport of playing with only one other dude, feeling that it accelerates the creative process. "In three years we've gotten as far as [other bands] get in 10," he told me.

Besides, austerity has its limits. Ticking off the changes we'll find on the pair's second full-length, already cut and set for a late-spring release, he could only come up with increases: "A little more country, way more Motown, more Stooges." More, it seems, of everything.


With Candy Apple

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