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Leeroy Stagger Leeroy Stagger
Album: Love Versus
Label: True North
Tracks: 10

The 11th studio release from prolific Canadian songwriter Leeroy Stagger, and an album that underscores the British Columbia native's evolution as a writer of significant substance and gravitas. Indeed the ever changing nature of today's society in general is mirrored in the broad mu-sical strokes that Stagger employs as a vital component of his work. Over his years of recording, that has always been the irresistible and often provocative force underpinning much of what he writes, and although "Love Versus" is still informed by that same restless, cathartic spirit in search of truth, justice and love, here there is a slight softening around the edges allowing emotions and relationships to be laid bare and world-weary shoulders to be lifted with suggestions of hope and fulfilment.

"Love Versus" is the sound of a songwriter, much like his much-revered peer and influence Steve Earle, comfortable in his own skin and steadfastly following a clear and dynamic musical highway - a highway where the limits and horizons are set by the artist himself. And although it is sometimes clumsy and lazy to tag Stagger with the "Americana" or "Canadiana" labels, for those who are unfamiliar with his work it can be a sound starting point.

Whilst his contemporaries such as Ryan Adams and Jason Isbell skilfully mine the seam of commercial success whilst simultaneously steadfastly holding onto artistic credibility, Stagger has always been the one scraping and scrapping away at the underbelly of mainstream acceptance amassing a fearsome back catalogue in the process, and maybe this album is the one which breaks surface to bask in the glow of mainstream americana acknowledgement.

Opening song "I Want It All" is Leeroy Stagger smiling at his lot. But not too much! It's latent hooky chorus and apparent lyrical satisfaction of where he's at personally, providing a feel-good factor that isn't always obvious on first listen to much of his work. And here's a songwriter that knows when to smile, but often that smile can hide a thinly-disguised, yet arrow-like barb. He may well have "a few guitars and a pretty good life", but he's still railing defiantly against 'the man'…"and all you bums that make the rules…don't play us for fools…we'll break the systems that you turned in-to, we'll take it back again". 11 albums in and Stagger still has that fire that is the foundation and the essence of any great songwriter, and it's what courses through this album and ensures that it's such an essential listen from start through to the closing acoustic whimsy and 'home is where the heart is' sentiment of "Until The End Of Time".

Crucial to this albums central themes of 'love' in it's many guises, and the perennial struggle for ac-ceptance, and the ultimate goal of happiness are two songs - and both for differing reasons. "Little Brother" sees Stagger getting to grips with the aftermath of his own brother's serious car accident, set against a "Red Right Hand" style regimented off beat. You can hear the despair, you can hear the depth of emotion as he cries "hold on to your breath, hold on 'til there's nothing left". Oppositely, with "Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone", another major influence is candidly revealed. The punk rock revolution that started in the mid-late seventies has a lot to answer for, and for many different reasons. But Strummer and Ramone, if they didn't start the blaze directly, certainly helped it become a monumental pyre which still burns fiercely in the hearts of many - including our protagonist. Anger, disquiet, and a feeling that despite age and experience the battle still goes on. It's all there, as Stagger and his crack band blast their way through 3 minutes of controlled melodic mayhem with respectful nods to the unique Ramones guitar sound and Mick Jones' tasteful lead licks a la "Safe European Home".

Elsewhere, there are songs of shimmering charm and no little beauty, such as "Enemy Inside" and the title track "Love Versus", where there is a refreshing emphasis on the songs being given a chance to breathe and live in a space of their own without the need for over production or over bearing musical detritus.

Stagger hasn't 'matured' as a songwriter - great songwriters don't mature, they evolve. He HAS evolved (and will continue to do so) - this album is solid testament to that fact. However, in the final analysis, "Love Versus" is a breathtaking achievement, from conception to completion, and demands that it be listened to, and loved. Much like Leeroy Stagger himself. One of North America's best contemporary songwriters? "Love Versus" just sealed the deal.

Ken Brown