Leah Callahan - Curious Tourist (Album Review)

There is no shortage of ideas on Leah Callahan's new album Curious Tourist. These ideas are primarily artistically vague, full of metaphors, almost dream-like in their hazy delivery, but are served alongside tight-as-a-knot indie rock that piques the spirit with its winsome ways. Callahan has been a stalwart of the indie rock scene ever since collaborating with Turkish Delight US in the early 90s. Since then, she has worked alongside Betwixt and The Glass Set, as well as releasing solo material. Curious Tourist marks Callahan's fourth solo album, and on it, she proves an entertaining and idiosyncratic host.

Sound-wise, "Curious Tourist" lands us directly in the 90s, with studio-recorded indie rock unencumbered by over-production or toyed with too much; just a band playing some nice melodic songs. But underneath the innocuously sweet tones, Callahan reveals a writer of depths, offering a narrative voice to guide her emotionally propelled songs.

The opening track, "Nowhere Girl," establishes the recurring themes of ostracism and ambition that play out throughout the collection. "You didn’t care / About what they all thought of you / They made you promise you'd get somewhere." Thankfully, the weighty subject is served alongside soaring guitar lines, key arpeggios, and dulcet vocals. It's reminiscent of The Beautiful South's easy-going but high-brow guitar-based pop. And while Callahan's tunes are poppy, they also possess an off-kilter, punky charm, as found on the album's standout tracks "No One", "Ordinary Face", and "Wish"; a sweet cut with a chipper riff that could perk up the wettest blanket.

The cover art for "Curious Tourist" features a photograph by Emmanuel Codden. The picture, in stark black and white, displays a street with whimsically costumed paraders looking in various directions. The cover embodies the music's nostalgically timeless feel, achieved via alternative rock just as hellbent on being radio-friendly as it is original. For example, the title track opens with a funky-stern naked beat crying out to be sampled, exotic production flourishes, sweeping strings, Mediterranean-warm key changes, and intoxicating singing. Meanwhile, "Super", with its sardonic words ("Mood swings a bitch/My birth was a glitch") is offset by a sing-alongable "oh ya" chorus.

In "Social Climber," Callahan shows her grit and her views on traditional ideas of success, but also the more vindictive side of her personality ("They all acted so superior / Now their lives are so much drearier than mine.") Perhaps this sensitivity to how society views us is where Callahan gets all the gusto from, perhaps she's singing to herself. In any case, it's a good songwriter who can invite psychoanalysis through the admission of murkier recess in the mind.

"All's Fair in War", a solid and rockingly upbeat tune replete with melodic piano lines, whammy-bar guitar strikes, and pulsating rhythms, is interestingly left instrumental. This track acts as somewhat of a breather from Callahan's often heady songs about the pains of fitting in. Ending on an introspective note, the piano balladry of "Duras" is close and intimate, while the closing track, a cover of "You Don't Love Me (No No No)," feels like an encore more than part of the set; not that there's anything wrong with that.

Curious Tourist by Leah Callahan is a fetching and unique album, notable for the genuine personality that comes through in the songcraft. Callahan wears her heart on her sleeve, unashamedly and crucially so. Whereas most modern artists who try to emulate the purity of 90s music end up creating a pastiche, Callahan has the credentials and experience to ensure there's a timeless quality to her songs that express strong ideas on the power of individuality.