By: Dennis Cook
First off, it's always swell when no one in a band is named the same as their band; I call this a "Jacob Fred" for short. Secondly, having a "band" that consists of one multi-tasking dude and one other guy BUT still giving that "band" a name is also neat. Leopold And His Fiction manages these small, amusing feats but more importantly Daniel James is a wicked good songwriter-musician capable of evoking some primo ancestors over the course of this dead solid, warmly wrapped 11-song effort.
The liner notes state Ain't No Surprise (Native Fiction) was "recorded everywhere under the sun and in apartments and houses and theaters, in closets, living rooms, and attics." This catch-as-catch-can approach creates a varied range yet each individual part is well-placed, well-played, well-intentioned. There's a very positive vibe permeating Ain't No Surprise, not so much lyrically (where James often goes pleasantly dark) but within the exuberant performances. There's real joie de vivre as James (vocals, guitar, bass, organ, percussion) and Ben Cook (drums, Wurlitzer) gather round whatever mic was handy. With a little mixing help from Tim Mooney (American Music Club and noted producer of Mark Kozelek, Chuck Prophet and many others) – a true Bay Area treasure - Surprise is able to contain James' multitudes, sailing smoothly from Dylan-y opener "One For Me To Find" to crackling, ambient closer "Adanelia."
Besides adding one of the best damn train songs to the canon in ages ("Mean Ol' Train"), James recalls Devendra Banhart on a good day on "Pretty Neat," and he similarly taps into the best parts of early Nick Cave ("Hawk Eyes"), Lloyd Cole ("Sun's Only Promise") and M. Ward ("Tiger Lily"). There's also a fair amount of The Velvet Underground's primal grind to Surprise, too, but James is no copyist; he's clearly funneling his own vision into song while inevitably (and appealingly) pulling bits 'n' pieces from his strummy ancestors. Only the Fiction's second album, this is dang promising stuff. Oh, the Leopold in question is apparently American environmental pioneer Aldo Leopold, whose oddly cheering quote in liners says a lot: "The important thing is not to achieve, but to strive."
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