Dreaming In Public is the album from Leapfrogtown, the band headed by character actor Christopher Guard, well known in Dr Who circles as The Greatest Show’s Bellboy. We gave a CD to our pet music critic, Robert Lear, so he could gaze for hours at the shiny side.
If there were one word to use for Leapfrogtown’s newly-released album, Dreaming In Public, the word I would suggest would be “ambitious.” That’s a word that most aptly describes my listening experience with it.
Christopher Guard and his crew come out fast and big with a stadium-rock style opener with “Fear.” It’s a great opening track, full of swagger and style, and it pretty much immediately cements the band’s sound for the majority of the album. Snarlingly distorted guitar and synth backing, along with a pulsing bassline that propels the song, with Chris Guard’s voice feeling somewhat reminiscent of Bryan Ferry; not the most fantastic singing voice in the world, but with enough style to convey the song in an interesting manner. But already with Fear the seeds of my complaints for the album are sown; the chorus is catchy enough but extremely repetitive, and the synth components of the song are a tad overblown for my tastes. It’s especially a shame in such a straightforward rock song that could easily have been stripped back into something leaner and meaner. But its propulsive confidence makes up for its shortcomings, making it a great starting point for the album.
That confidence carries over into the second track, Seven, with its syncopating rhythm line and almost ska-like saxophone intrusions. A fun but simple ditty, fairly devoid of substance save for a somewhat discordant piano solo from Guard himself. Still, as three minute rock songs go it’s decent enough. Perhaps its biggest flaw is that this brief paragraph is about all that can be said for it.
The third track on the album, Enough is Enough, is perhaps emblematic of Dreaming In Public’s worst flaws, taking four minutes to repeat itself over and over again, with verse, prechorus and chorus mostly comprising the same refrains repeated with slight variance. A shame, because the bass creates a lovely groove to sustain the song. Sadly, as it is, the song gets quite stuck in that groove, meaning that the song as a whole lacks variety beyond the occasional unwelcome intrusion of an awful, screeching falsetto in the final third of the song.
If Enough is Enough didn’t do enough to differentiate throughout the song, then the fourth track changes entirely past the mid-point. Fill the Space opens as a lovely synth build, making you think that it might be an introspective and dark number. It’s a wonderful beginning, tonally different from the rest of the album so far. Sadly, the initial promise doesn’t continue past the first verse, with the chorus being a rather dull and impactless pop affair. It feels that this song had a deal more potential than it fulfilled, a disappointing outcome. And once again, the chorus is a repetition of one statement.
Bed Forever is another very different track, moving to a more folky, warm acoustic sound. A simple song, but delivered very well. Frankly, I’d quite happily listen to an album of Chris Guard singing over a single guitar if his fingering patterns and chord structure remained at this level. I’d say, in fact, that this is the most accomplished song of the album thus far, proving that if he strips his sound back a little he could create some very interesting and impressive songs. Sadly, it’s also one of the shortest songs on the album at a mere two minutes, and then it’s right back to layered synth for track six.
Turn Me Off is another ambitious attempt that doesn’t perhaps achieve what it was trying to do. Guard’s vocals in this song in particular feel a little lost; between layering himself several times and allowing his lyrics to meander without any real structure, it makes for a confused-seeming song. The chorus and verse seem to bleed into one another in an impactless way, lacking the propulsion of his earlier songs. These problems are absolutely highlighted by the end of the song, with two Chris Guards talking over one another in a staggering, lost way.
C Vitae opens well, with an acoustic picking opening and a fun little bassline that leads to a kicking chorus, and it seems like there’s a return to form for the album. Unfortunately it’s the kicking chorus that proves to be its undoing; there’s an extreme of repetition to it, not only in its lyrics but in its appearance. By the 1:30 mark the chorus has been sung twice, and it appears another two times in the three-minute song. Beyond the repetition is a very distorted guitar that makes the lower end somewhat muddy as well.
Track eight, Anyone’s Game, begins with a lovely, lush mix of piano and bass that perhaps overpowers the rhythm guitar just a little. Guard really leans into his Bryan Ferry delivery on this one, and the results are positive. If C Vitae was a false return to form, this is instead another promising divergence from Leapfrogtown’s usual style. The piano solo in the middle isn’t exactly to my taste, as it falls a little too far into discordant jazz, but it’s not outside the scope of the song and fits well enough.
Promise is a very nice little song, with a single piano accompanying the vocals. The lyrics are quite sweet, but unfortunately it’s rather overproduced, with synth and special effects being used to round out the sound of the song. Again, it could have worked so much better in a more narrow focus. As it is, the song is somewhat bogged down by the extraneous clutter, which seems a real shame when it would have worked so well on its own, and it could easily have been one of the standout tracks on the album.
In the Dark continues the trend of overproduction, with the acoustic guitar opening flanging from side to side in the mix until the more punkish chorus breaks in. Even that’s plagued with a continuous and out-of-place synth over the top of it, and the second verse leans into the production, with swooping and stuttering synth sounds adding nothing but distraction to the proceedings. And once more the repetitive chorus structure returns with three out of four lines repeating the same thing. The bridging guitar solo seems oddly distant in the mix as well, resting behind the synth-clutter in an oddly unobtrusive way. In fact, almost everything seems eclipsed by the omnipresent snyth blips and pings.
The eleventh track is the title track, Dreaming in Public, and it may be that it’s the song most representative of Leapfrogtown, warts and all. It opens with an almost Primus-esque guitar-and-bass run that lends it a chaotic energy. The simple, rocking rhythm is laid over a straight rock drumbeat that makes you feel this might be a no-nonsense crowdpleaser, but the guitars soon find themselves swamped by intruding snyth again creeping in around the edges. The drums seem a tad overproduced as well, the crisp sound of the cymbals being reduced to a kind of background snythetic fizz. And once more the chorus is repetitive and prosaic, repeating nothing but the title of the song ad nauseam. There is a rather nice guitar solo, though, chaotic and jangling over the jammy backing bass. So much of this song works well, but so much of it is lost in the mix.
Fortunately, we have Double Trouble to bring the album back to its swaggering style. A wonderful opener between two guitars breaks into a smooth bass grind. There’s a lot of funky blues guitar, with some fantastic bass breakdowns in the background. The whole song, in fact, feels profoundly different to the overproduced tracks on this album. It feels like this is a jam song the band has been kicking around for years during practices to get warmed up, and there’s an assured rhythm to the whole thing that works like gangbusters. If there’s one criticism to level at this song, it’s that the structure of it is very static. There’s no great difference between the verse and chorus when it comes to the bass and guitar, rendering it one long riff that is certainly enjoyable, but suffers from a lack of contrast, leaving differentiation to the drums and vocals. Still, once again it’s nice to see the narrower, less synthesized sound from the band, as they really seem to excel there.
Another acoustic open for the thirteenth track, Poppy. It slowly builds from a single guitar and vocals without ever losing the focus on those two elements. Even the synth elements are less intrusive here, sliding in at the background and letting the simpler elements take focus. The drums are perhaps a tad present when they do kick in, but it allows the song to begin shifting from folksy simplicity to a more rock ‘n’ roll drive. When the song kicks in properly it’s with confidence and balance, leaving the guitar a nice space to fill with a solo when Guard finishes his singing. There are still a few bits of synth that tend not to add much to the overall sound of the song, but they’re definitely toned back in comparison to the worst excesses of the album.
The final track, Words are Cheap, begins with another very nice, intricate guitar opening, layering acoustic and electronic and then with bass. Sadly, the rest of the song is somewhat bland, with the chorus not really bursting out as much as sliding in, and it leaves the song without much in the way of peaks or troughs. And while that’s not a terrible thing in itself, it does feel a little self-indulgent when the last forty seconds of the song are a descent into overproduction once more, layering in reversed sounds over samples from the band’s other songs, including one not on the album. That particular part, dropping the chorus of their single “The Room”, felt more like a shout-out to existing fans than an attempt to win over new ones, especially seeing as the snippets played didn’t really fit in with the song in tone or pitch. The repetitive chorus is back in force as well, unfortunately, with everything vocally past the 2:30 of the four-and-a-half minute song being a variation on “Words are Cheap,” not counting the samples from other songs.
And so it comes down to ambition. Leapfrogtown were definitely ambitious with this album, trying a number of styles and sounds. Some worked wonderfully, but in the end the band’s reach exceeds its grasp a number of times. Standout tracks are most often the simpler and more straightforward, with Fear perhaps being the best marrying of guitar and synth that they manage. If Fear is an indicator of where the band will go, I’d say that proves to be very promising indeed, but promise is the best word I can use thus far; there’s still a long way to go before their sound is polished enough to rely upon. The lyrics are also repetitive and somewhat prosaic, leaving not much meat for those who enjoy a deeper meaning. Like Christopher Guard himself says, “don’t think too deep about me.”
This may all sound very harsh, but I did enjoy the album. It was because I enjoyed what it offered well that I was disappointed so much by what didn’t quite work. I’ll most definitely keep an eye on Leapfrogtown, at any rate. Fortunately, those of you interested will find it easy enough to sample Leapfrogtown’s sound before you choose whether to buy their album or not; http://www.leapfrogtown.com is easily navigable and has the entire album free to listen to, as well as several videos hotlinked from YouTube (including the video for the song “The Room” mentioned in “Words Are Cheap.” That’s another very good piece of music, worth listening to if you enjoyed the album).