by Nick Hanover
2015 has been a year of sonic experimentation in Austin, anxieties over the future of the scene spilling over and inspiring anxious music where sounds twist into unexpected forms and genres that had gotten a little staid suddenly open up and branch out. While a lot of that has come from the new wave of punk pranksters, starting with Big Bill on down to US Weekly and Popper Burns, there is also a growing number of pop eccentrics, artists trying to carry some of that rogue “let’s mix shit up” mentality to more “traditional” genres. Bedroom pop daredevil Leach puts himself at the vanguard of this latter movement in Austin with his new mini-album Kokedama, a suite of seven tracks that shows Leach’s melodic talents as well as his envious production skills while also questioning what pop can or cannot be.
Named after a “Japanese art form in which the artist grows a plant out of a bed of moss,” Kokedama is essentially constructed around a desire to make art in anti-gravity, to pair the traditional with the sublime. Leach’s linernotes state that he made the record in order to confront his artistic insecurity and the notion of a botanical artform that had a plant growing in essential weightlessness appealed to him. It’s fitting then that the entire work has an airy quality to it, defined as much by Leach’s open production as by whistling synths and lungfuls of vocal expression. The sound is casual but deep, invigorating in its emotional frankness yet not so serious that it can’t get playful as it comments on artistic insecurity. As Leach puts it in “Blueberry Queen,” “Got a record that I think you’d like/Or I wish you’d like,” the backing beat eager to please in its boom bap intensity even as Leach’s vocal illustrates his nervousness, his fervent desire to be liked.
Even as Leach is wanting you to like him, he’s pushing at your expectations, so you get tracks like “Waiting on You,” which deliver handclaps and shimmery guitar lines and a pretty melody but back it with a twisty, unexpected beat that places its emphasis in nontraditional spots and exercises Wrong Theory with the intrusion of borderline annoying percussion. Leach wants you to like his art but he doesn’t want to change his art in order to accomplish that, the expectation is that you’ll meet the work on its own terms and embrace its eccentricity while easing into comfort with the more traditional elements. The album even begins with “Tru Luv,” an electro-soul number that shows that Leach knows how to craft an indie hit, borrowing elements from TV on the Radio and Junior Boys, giving samples of every piece of his range, from baritone speak-singing to falsetto crooning.
Where “Tru Luv” is more somber and traditional, Kokedama’s single “Grown Up” takes the opposite tack, building up from a playful synth line like something from a lost Gregg Araki film before dialing it back to give Leach’s near falsetto verse room to stretch and play. The entire song is rooted in play, in fact, with Leach asking whether his face looks funny as he makes an odd sound, the video simply showing him jumping rope and lip syncing. It’s one of the least rhythmically focused-songs on the album, the percussion strictly summer sprinkler hi-hats and big bass booms, the spotlight instead given to all those mischievous sounds and Leach’s disarmingly fragile voice. “Tiptoes” is similarly minimalist but there the beat is more dominant in the mix, snaps and kick beats pushing back at Leach’s breathy delivery, the arrangement adding increasingly complex percussive variations even as Leach’s vocal subtly mixed.
Kokedama’s biggest surprise comes in its final moments, though, as Leach breaks from his digitally focused influences to unveil “Down to a Science,” a closing number that bridges French pop structures and the kind of ethereal acoustics Grandaddy and Earlimart had, well, down to a science. Where Leach’s arrangements make up a lot of the appeal for the other tracks on the album, “Down to a Science” is stripped down and light, basically just a double tracked guitar paired with a subtle toy organ line as Leach sings like he’s trying to keep his voice down in a silent, darkened house full of restless relatives.
That’s a fitting close for an album built around a need to not only be liked but respectfully heard while keeping your head down in a scene that talks a big weirdness game but so infrequently practices it. Being weird in punk means standing out from the pack with unusual perspectives as well as sounds but in pop it means being weirdly quiet and unorthodox, skewing towards the ethereal instead of the bombastic. Kokedama proves Leach isn’t just comfortable in those quiet moments that make other pop hopefuls cringe, he relishes them.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover