Leo Harmonay – Astoria – Album Review
Rare to find authenticity like you’ll find in Leo Harmonay.
I was probably about halfway through the first song on Leo’s new album Astoria called “We All Know,” maybe even less, before I realized we’ve got every bit as much of a poet here as we do a musician in this one artist right here. Over the course of listening to the record, like so many, there are songs I’d grow even more attached to revealed throughout the depth of the set-list, but “We All Know” truly ended up staying amongst the best of the best – it’s not only a really solid tune in itself, but it’s a tremendous gateway into Harmonay’s music. You’ll hear the man’s voice for the first time, and likely instantly connect to the level of Van Morrison-esque smoothness he can create at the heart of the magic in his melodies, the musicianship has the right sparkle & shine to it through performance & production, the backing vocals on this song are essential, and all-in-all, it’s an excellent first impression of what this artist is capable of. The smoothness in these bass-lines hits you instantly…I can’t even begin to explain just how much I was in the mood for a sound like this the moment that I put it on…those bass-lines hit, and I just immediately felt like I was going to be in for a quality experience from start to finish. Leo would go on not only to not disappoint ya in the least in that regard, but he’ll go on to genuinely wow you with the quality in this whole lineup of songs. “We All Know” sets the standard to a certain respect, but also sets the bar high in the process…perhaps the best way I can put it is to simply say, you feel an immediate connection to the humble & soulful style of the main star of the show, and an endearing pull towards his music overall that will have you scrambling to find a seat on his bandwagon wherever there might still be a lil’ room left for some of us to sit down. Leo’s got the magic of music in him, and it’s apparent from song ONE.
Y’all gotta understand…I spend a LOT of time listening to The National…they’d easily be right up there among my favorite bands of the past couple decades at this point – and Leo has SO MUCH in common with their sound, style, and ambitious nature on “The Irony Of Love” that I can’t help myself from being completely supportive of artistic ideas & deep rooted melodies like you’ll find on this song. I can’t get enough of this cut once it makes its first major transition around the 1:25 mark – up to that point, I was enjoying myself thoroughly through the uniqueness of this tune, and after that point, I was straight-up amazed at just how much Leo got out of “The Irony Of Love.” I mentioned the backing vocals on the first tune being essential – and to say they’re equally so here on this second tune would be to put it mildly – there are so many things going right that even with limited ingredients, bass, guitar, drums, vocals & whatnot, it would still take another ten pages to list’em all. Personally, I think this was a bold, bold tune to put this far upfront in the lineup of Astoria and makes a statement of its own just by being where it is – there are easy-to-digest folk records, and then there is folk music with real substance to it – and this quickly reveals itself to be a case of the latter when you hear the depth in this second cut. I love the dimension that the hand-drums add to this as well…at least, that’s what I’m assuming I’m hearing…it’s definitely got a fantastic range of sound that extends from the kit, and it’s a major contributor to this tune’s unique allure. The backing vocals are pretty much award worthy in my opinion…especially when considering how much they complement what Leo has going on in the lead…this man is one incredible songwriter, and that’s undeniable in listening to a track like “The Irony Of Love” and the creativity it possesses. You don’t find too many tunes out there like this, which in itself is somewhat of a tragedy; but it sure makes you appreciate what you’ve got here when you find it…this is a very special track on Astoria and one of the most bold artistic visions you’ll find in full fruition throughout this whole record.
I mean…the dude just GETS IT – how else would anyone hear what Leo comes up with? You listen to the remarkably easygoing vibes on “The Seams Of Regret” and the contrasting heaviness of the lyricism, along with the inherent spark of wisdom in Leo’s voice that has you consistently listening to every word like your very life depends on hearing what he has to say…like c’mon – this guy’s making magic y’all. You can hear it in the lead vocals…you can hear it in the outstanding way Harmonay uses harmonies throughout this record…the stellar design of the structure and impeccable musicianship…it is ALL there when it comes to the results you’ll hear in this man’s music, and certainly on display through the mastery of his songwriting on “The Seams Of Regret.” Listen to smart ideas like the hum of the backing vocals…or the addition of the piano as it livens up the finale with just the tiniest of twinkles giving the final moments another last twist before it’s all over – Leo’s sound may appear fairly stripped-down & simple upon the surface, but when you dig into the attention to details, these songs have serious depth. “The Seams Of Regret” would quite likely be the song I’d be looking at most when it comes to a lead-single to represent Astoria…the melody you’ll find at the core of this song as Leo sings the verses with such impressive imagery & thought-provoking lyricism almost can’t help but connect to the hearts & minds of those who listen. For all of you out there that have questioned your own decisions in life, or wondered how you got yourself to point-B from point-A long ago while you lay awake at night waiting on the sandman to show up – this Bud right here’s for you. Ultimately, “The Seams Of Regret” applies to just about every one of us…because most of us have’em – Leo will walk you through many of his own as he lines this song with poetic emotion and personal observations on life and love that relate to us all.
“Running Around” is an interesting tune and a great flux point on the record to talk about. I’m realistic in the sense that, the easygoing demeanor of this tune doesn’t quite have that same comparable magic & X-factors that you’ll find in the first three tracks – I get that. But at the same time, when you’re listening to Astoria…ask yourself for a moment – if this was just a ‘good song’ from Leo Harmonay, well – then we’re on pretty damn solid ground & crusin’ to all green lights ahead of us, are we not? I’m also very conscious of how a set-list flows when it comes time to review a record – and there’s not a doubt in my mind that “Running Around” has the hardest slot to fill – lest we forget, it did just come right after what very well might be the ultimate universal favorite by all with “The Seams Of Regret” only mere moments before. So don’t get me wrong here, I think Leo played this right, lemme explain. Anything that would have come after “The Seams Of Regret” would have had a tougher time standing out – that’s just the nature of the game when it comes to following spectacular tunes – and while “Running Around” might not quite reach that same status with listeners out there, Leo’s made a smart choice by not doing too much. In essence, it’s almost in listening to the easygoing vibes of “Running Around” that allow us a moment to absorb what we just experienced in the depths of the song right beforehand, by giving us a pleasant & upbeat atmosphere with thick rubbery bass-lines to groove on for a less demanding moment. All this being said, I’m declaring this my own personal pandemic anthem…though no, I don’t have any hard facts in front of me to prove that’s what this is about; all I’m saying is that the chorus of “why’s everyone running around, they got nowhere to go” is a thought that goes through my head daily & been how I’ve felt every time I’ve had to go out & walk my dog, only to run into about thirty or forty people along the way that seem to have forgotten Covid was a thing…for this past YEAR. Ahem, I digress…
Tracks like “On The Plains” would arguably take Leo’s music deeper into his folk style & sound, reaching the rich texture of sensory vibes & storyteller’s approach you’d find in something like the band Calexico. You’ll get it when you hear it…tunes like these almost play like a topographical map in your mind where you can see every detail vividly as Leo describes the surroundings he observes throughout this song in his humbly poetic style…the man’s got a perspective & an innate ability with words that consistently hits the mark – Harmonay knows how to keep you listening, interested, and fully engaged. You’re not going to find “On The Plains” on the Top-40 station…but that’s well beside the point of why songs like these are made…you make songs like “On The Plains” for the pure love of the craft and sincere enjoyment of making music that lasts & offers something totally different than a snazzy forgettable moment in time. I’m continually LOVING what this guy has put into the background of his music…don’t get me wrong – Leo does what he does fantastically well from the lead & his guitar – but in terms of his overall strengths in songwriting, or anyone’s for that matter, you get an even better idea of what he’s fully capable of by how it ALL comes together. Think of singer/songwriters as the captains of a team if you like – it’s that same concept – the rest of the team takes their cues from that leader, and hopefully, that leader in one way or the other, inspires, challenges, and provokes their team to rise to the occasion. When you’re listening to Harmonay’s songs and how everything is so perfectly dialed right in to where it should be from performance to production, lyrics to vocals to music – you have to assume the team involved with making this record was as unified and on the same page as they could be, because it SOUNDS like it. The violin on this track is stunning, love how it becomes a perfect addition & complement to the rest of the band and the mysterious & curious vibe Leo’s working with, and the subtle piano (and keyboards, I think?) laced into the background too. This is where you really get to the storyteller-side of Leo’s music the most without question – he’s revealed this in each & every tune mind you, but during “On The Plains” you really feel that added wisdom his tone of voice contributes to his material, and as a result, we become captivated & outright compelled to listen to how this all turns out. Dude’s got a whole like, slightly tribal thing goin’ on underneath the surface here as well, which works absolutely brilliantly.
Much like how he did at the very outset of his new record, Leo’s vocals become a stunning dead-ringer for Van Morrison’s mix of sweet-meets-bold melody once again on “River Of Things” as the vibe lightens up a bit & a more universally appealing sound takes over. Songs like “On The Plains” are great, don’t get me wrong – there’s a whole ton of people out there far & wide that are really digging tunes like that and have been for years & years, but it’s virtually undeniable that a track like “River Of Things” has more potential reach when it comes right down to it. In fact, of all songs on this record I’d maybe put out there just prior to “The Seams Of Regret,” if only to present Leo’s music from a more upbeat dimension of what he creates, “River Of Things” would be that candidate for sure. Chances are, this is the most accessible track on all of Astoria – you’d have to be among the hardest of hearts out there to resist the endearing sweetness & poetry this man’s creating to begin with, but you start factoring in a bit more tangible brightness and upbeat vibes into the mix like you’ll find on “River Of Things” and you’ve got yourself a whole new ballgame when it comes to how far Harmonay might have hit this outta the park for listening ears out there. In a way, “River Of Things” becomes close to how I feel towards tunes like “Running Around” and “Fading Away” later on down the road here, but seems to stay on the right side of the line to keep us easily engaged with every ticking second. Easygoing yes; but extremely compelling too – he might be walking softly, but he’s carrying a big stick – and upon that stick, is one word: quality. Leo doesn’t need to beat you over the head with flashy razzle & dazzle – he does it with quality. Quality writing, quality musicianship, quality execution all-around…and you know what REALLY makes that great and amazing? You can totally just imagine Leo walking into a studio, humble AF, sitting down on a stool, layin’ out some guitar, singin’ some tunes, packing it all back up, and leaving like he wasn’t even there – like music is just something the man’s gotta do if he’s gonna be able to carry on with the rest of his day & find his way to sleep at night. “River Of Things” drifts with such blissfully natural ease, it’s wonderful.
What a VOICE this guy has! “Walking Each Other Home (For Ram Dass)” brings out one of the most stellar & natural performances you’ll hear from Leo…it’s damn near exquisite y’all, I ain’t lyin.’ Songs like these are crucial in getting to know the man behind the music, truly – make sure you’re paying attention to what’s in the ol’ brackets of this title, and that in itself will provide you with some insight. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Ram Dass, he’s essentially a healer, a guide, and a unifier – and these are just mere adjectives to describe on the most basic of levels the many incredible accomplishments & humanitarian efforts he provided this world before he departed towards the end of 2019. The puzzle shouldn’t be that tough to piece together from there folks – you wouldn’t write a song FOR Ram Dass just outta the blue – it’s clear that he had an influence on Harmonay from the existence of this song alone – and from there, you can glean the assumption that Leo’s got a good heart with full confidence. I mean, that’s been plenty clear in listening to Astoria from start to finish of course, but statements in songs like these do make an impact, make the whole experience more direct & definitive, and really do help us get to know who Leo really is & what he’s likely all about both inside & outside of the music. “Sometimes I’m alone, but I don’t feel like I’ve changed – but I look in your eyes, and I know I ain’t the same” – I could honestly have pulled quotes from this entire album and kept us all here ‘til the following Tuesday next week reading this review, for the record – Leo’s got an incredibly genuine way with his words, and it’s moments like this that show his impeccable way of being personal in relatable ways. There will be many points on Astoria where you’ll listen and likely feel you could have sworn that was exactly how you felt yourself about something, only didn’t have the words to fully describe it all. That’s where an artist like Leo Harmonay comes in and makes the most difference; he comes equipped with those words…he understands how to create meaningful moments that will sincerely move you, like this tune right here. “Walking Each Other Home (For Ram Dass)” might not be the track that immediately stands out the quickest in the lineup, perhaps; but it’s one that will keep people coming back and have listeners truly appreciating just how much of the artist himself is within the layers of this song for sure. In terms of a finale…on any of these songs…you’ll find an exceptional highlight on “Walking Each Other Home (For Ram Dass)” that is pretty much unparalleled…I would have been plenty tempted to have finished the entire album on notes like these were I Mr. Harmonay…but there’s still more quality tunes yet to follow.
If you’re a writer in any way, shape or form, I just think there’s a ton for you to enjoy here, full-stop. Listening to the craftsmanship in Leo’s music has been nothing short of excellent so far, and the consistency he reveals time after time, tune after tune…you get to a point like “Certain Hours” on the record at track number eight, and you realize how Harmonay hasn’t let you down for a solitary moment of experiencing Astoria. All this man needed to be, was himself…and here we are, and that’s why we love it – Leo Harmonay is a guy that was born with songwriter-bones & the soulful sound to go with’em. “The uncertainty of certain hours” is such a magnificent & thought-provoking line…it could be magic, it could be mystery…heck, it could be misery right around the corner even – but Leo’s made us appreciate how anticipation plays a role through lyrics like you’ll find on this song, and the stoic wisdom in his voice & inviting tone continually makes these experiences powerfully humble, grounded, and entirely real. He’s reaching right into his bag of Van Morrison & John Fogerty influences here…and quite arguably, comes out with one of his own mesmerizing best in the process – I love, love, love “Certain Hours.” I know I’ve got a date in my future at some point in time where I’ll be listening to this song while walking the streets of Ottawa here in the nation’s capital of Canada over these years to follow, and it’s going to come on at just the right time for me to hear it again – I don’t know this for a fact, I just know it to be true. Maybe I won’t even need to play it…maybe it’ll just pop back into my head…because this is what a memorable moment in time is all about – “Certain Hours” has that intangible magic that will not only have you coming back for more, but were it not so quaint & sincere, you’d fully stand up & cheer for songwriting & execution like you’ll find in this cut. Remarkable in every way, it’s a master-class in great songwriting & absolutely one of my own personal favorites from the lineup of amazing tracks on Astoria.
Part of me feels a bit similar towards “Fading Away” as I did towards “Running Around” earlier on; still a good tune without question, but perhaps not quite right up there with my top three if you follow me. Again, I present the point that, if this was the worst this album somehow got – and I use the term ‘worst’ assuming you know that there’s no ‘worst’ of anything on Astoria – I’m just saying that, this is a song that’s still going to pass muster or better with 99% of the people listening, and you gotta like those odds. If anything, perhaps you can relegate both of these particular tracks to what you might consider to be songs that Leo & his crew would have a generally easier time putting together with the skills they all have – how about that? And as I’ve also said many times here on these pages of ours, just because it might sound that way, easier – doesn’t always make it so to begin with; and the reality of hearing any song that comes out as smoothly & flawlessly as “Fading Away” or any other track you can find on Astoria is that you always know the work really HAS been put in. Because flawless results just don’t happen otherwise, you dig? All of Leo’s comfortable & inviting vibes have a direct correlation to knowing his material and being rehearsed & ready to roll, every bit as much as they do to his own inherent ability to entertain and write great songs…these ain’t exactly a bad bunch of qualities to be rockin’ with if you’re out there making music folks. You can feel the investment being made into these songs as you listen…you know that each and every one of’em comes from a special place within this man, that he’s seen & lived a lot of life, and that there is value, poetic or otherwise, in all he has to say. I suppose what I’ve been getting at, is that even in what appears to be the most natural & unassuming moments, Leo proves to be an extraordinarily gifted communicator & clever songwriter; if the moment called for more, I’m sure he’d put it in there – the fact is, he gives these tunes everything they need.
New York-based Leo can actually sound a ton like a couple of my own country’s Canadian heroes too, which is pretty cool! We might just need to try and adopt this cat as a nation over here on the other side of the border line. I’ve had multiple times where I’ve found he’s reminded me of Hugh Dillon of The Headstones in their lower key moments where they’re not punkin’ it up, like on songs like “Cubically Contained” type-sound…and then there are tunes like “Flat Landscape Line” where he sounds nearly like a dead-ringer for the rich boldness of Tom Wilson’s voice in Junkhouse. Love the amount of organic & ambient sounds you’ll find contributing to this tune, I dig the looseness that it has, and I think the creative & innovative way this song was written allows for one of the most impressively natural vibes you’ll hear on any tune from this record – “Flat Landscape Line” is noticeably different than the rest. Lyrically, this is one of my favorite tracks on the entire record, if not THE favorite by a fair country mile, which is saying quite a bit considering how much I respect this man’s writing and have pointed out his awesomeness many times so far throughout this whole review. “Flat Landscape Line” is altogether next-level brilliant though…and if you’re listening really, really closely…it’s probably the cut that will reveal just how much the teachings of a dude like Ram Dass have had an effect on Hamonay over his years. The interpretive value in the lyricism is astounding here, straight up. If you were to ask me, I’d tell ya that “Flat Landscape Line” is about two beings observing ALL of time for what it is…the entire story, all at once…how we all fit into it, how we all contribute…how it’s already been written & we’re just here livin’ it still…how we’re conscious, but not…y’know, some of that real philosophical stuff for your brain to chew on, dear readers, dear friends. My ears appreciate this greatly. And perhaps the best thing about it? You’ll listen to it and likely come to a completely different conclusion regarding what “Flat Landscape Line” is all about to YOU…like, if you weren’t the spiritual type, you’d get something totally different outta this experience than I might, or someone else you know would. The unassuming nature of this whole vibe is spectacular…I felt like if people are really listening to this record, “Flat Landscape Line” is a track that should really have you talking about what you’ve experienced here – this one’ll make ya think.
If there was any track on this record that I was never really completely sure of, it was honestly probably this tune right at the end here, “You Are The Light.” And ultimately, there’s no real case to make for not including it in this lineup on Astoria – like all-things-Leo, it’s still a solid & steady song, quaint & humble as it may be. I’d challenge he visits closer to a type of old-school gospel sound on this song without taking that too far overboard to be obvious…the hints are more in the structure & design than you’ll find anything coming atcha too directly to reveal this, in my opinion. The call & answer vocals that occur between the lead & background certainly contribute to that feeling, the simplified bass and easygoing, invitational sing-along type sound he’s rockin’ here…the interpretive value of his lyricism could have you believing as well, that this is indeed a song based in some sort of religion…and perhaps that’s not so far from the truth in any scenario. If he’s rockin’ with the G-O-D, then right on & have at it hoss, sounds great & right in line with that crowd’s whole scene – but even if it’s not religiously-based…listen to the words, listen to the theme, listen to the invitational sound meant to be shared – music has always been OUR religion, and I’m more than willing to have Leo Harmonay take us straight to church y’all – testify! On the brighter side of his sound to send us off with a stellar slice of happiness, peace, unity, light & love – I ain’t hatin’ on it, that’s for sure – I dig the slight jazzy/funk vibes that crawl into this tune as it plays and appreciate this final dose of Astoria providing yet another dimension of the man’s overall style. Leo’s done himself proud with this entire lineup of songs, and just because he’s pepped up a bit here at the end doesn’t change the quality of the experience – it’s yet another enhancement, another aspect of what he can create, another facet of his sound…and truly, a joyous way to end what’s been a fantastic experience from start to finish on Leo Harmonay’s new album. As I’ve been saying from moment one here in this review, the guy’s got the real magic of music inside him, and he lets it out confidently in this set of radiantly substantial folk songs with a whole lot of heart & real authenticity on display at all times.
Find out more about Leo Harmonay from his official website at: http://www.lharmonic.com
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