Dylan LeBlanc deserves the pressure. The 22-year-old Louisiana singer has earned the high hopes and expectations that have been placed on him. His appearance and performance style (tall, brooding, reticent) bear an uncanny resemblance to Townes Van Zandt. Add in his gloomy country noir and Muscle Shoals-laden musical background, and it all amounts to a throwback act with the potential to thrill Americana fans.
LeBlanc deserves the pressure because he’s a tremendously gifted singer and an even more arresting, if timid, performer. His debut album, Pauper’s Field, contained several reasons to care mightily about the singer. Though the reliance on his drone and mumble made that album at times hard to sit through, songs like “If Time Was For Wasting” and “Changing Of The Seasons” were country gems, songs that proved his knack for writing an infectious hook even if it meant sacrificing some of his melancholy.
Then, a revelation: LeBlanc shows up alongside Sharon Jones on Steve Cropper’s 2011 Dedicated, a tribute album to ’50s R&B pioneers The 5 Royales. He lets his throat open wide and becomes the weary singer he so strained to be on his two previous solo records. He’s free and loose, finally having some fun. “Where are you baby, I’m almost crazy,” he moans. “And if you don’t come back to me, I’m gonna kill myself,” LeBlanc deadpans, as if he’s never enjoyed himself more.
On his new album, LeBlanc covers some new ground, but he doesn’t let The 5 Royales teach him his lesson. Cast The Same Old Shadow is a more complete work than Pauper’s Field, the arrangements fuller and the songs more tightly knit, but it can still be laborious. He relies on a smokey whisper when the full band arrangements on songs like “Where Are You Now” beg for something more. The torch song is a centerpiece of sorts, and the relaxed ballad fits the reluctant singer well, but it’s hard to take much away from LeBlanc’s songwriting when he insists, perhaps more than ever, on using his voice more as instrument than as storytelling vehicle. That voice, still the most gorgeous instrument in the band, is even further back in the mix here, which wouldn’t be as much of an issue if he would enunciate more and mumble a bit less. He’s an impressive stylist, but there’s reason to believe he’s holding back something much more.
That’s not to say Cast The Same Old Shadow isn’t a step forward. “Brother” echoes the most convincing pop moments on Pauper’s Field, but it builds and grows, never sitting still. It even rocks. LeBlanc’s immaturity as an artist is still obvious, though, when he strives for that wise-beyond-his-years, weary posturing. “Ties That Bind” is a laundry list of truisms that feels forced and less personal than the singer sitting in a 5th Avenue Bar, young, and sad, and high. For all its imperfections, Cast The Same Old Shadow has its moments, but ultimately it’s an excuse to keep watching LeBlanc as he finds his way.
Essential Tracks: “Brother,” “Where Are You Now”