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Music

California Sounds: New music from Leslie Stevens, Grand Canyon and the Bird & the Bee

Leslie Stevens
Leslie Stevens’ new album, “Sinner,” comes out Aug. 23 through Thirty Tigers.
(Julia Brokaw)

Leslie Stevens, “Depression Descent” (Thirty Tigers). The second track from the country singer’s forthcoming album, “Sinner,” carries listeners on a lyrical roller coaster that seems to ride not on rails but air. Backed by an expertly selected band, Stevens begins the song -- which The Times is premiering -- on Christmas and moves through a complicated New Year’s Day in the second verse before setting herself at home watching Johnny Cash on the TV near the end.

In between, the longtime Angeleno, who is best known for her work leading Leslie & the Badgers, eases into the two-word chorus with a melancholy resolve: “Depression, descent.”

Filled with twang and driven by a mid-tempo, snared-snapping beat, the track was produced by Jonathan Wilson at his Fivestar Studios in Echo Park, and features contributions from a backing band whose resumes include stints with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bright Eyes and Father John Misty. As such, it’s a seamless recording, as finely tuned as the pedal steel line that weaves through the work.

But crack band or no, this is Stevens’ work from start to finish. Like kindred spirits such as Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty and Jenny Lewis, she seems uninterested in asking Nashville’s permission to write country songs, and unconcerned about whether her themes are too complex for commercial radio. Another new song, “12 Feet High,” stars Stevens’ soaring voice, which hits notes with the ease of Dolly Parton as Stevens describes trying to “keep the weakness from my poetry,” only to realize that “it sneaks back in just like a honey bee.”

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The Bird & the Bee, “Hot for Teacher (featuring Beck)” (Release Me Records). Taken from the duo’s forthcoming tribute album, “Interpreting the Masters Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen” (Aug. 2), singer Inara George and producer Greg Kurstin harness a cheeky song by Pasadena’s finest rock export and transform it into a dynamic, jazz-fueled docudrama about a teacher-student tryst.

It’s a ridiculous song in the first place, made more so here with the aid of Beck, who plays the teacher that singing narrator George is crushing on. During an instrumental break in Van Halen’s original, singer David Lee Roth delivers a spoken play-by-play on the circumstances surrounding the affair; here, substitute teacher Beck does this work. He asks Kurstin to keep it down in the back and discusses the opening chapter of “Moby Dick” before wrapping up the class. Then the teacher adds, “Inara, I’m going to have to ask you to stay after class.” Gross? Yeah, but the Bird & the Bee aren’t advocating; they’re just reinterpreting.

Grand Canyon, “November Rain” (Bodan Kuma). The half-dozen well-practiced rock musicians who perform as Grand Canyon don’t futz around. A band that taps the rich vein of electrified American music as purveyed by artists including Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, Grand Canyon delivers its cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” with a reverence usually reserved for iconic works by Woody Guthrie or Muddy Waters. Singer-guitarist Casey Shea delivers Axl Rose’s song with way less yowling than the original, and cofounder Amy Wilcox adds delicate backing vocals to further distinguish their take.

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The “November Rain” cover is the last song on the Grand Canyon’s most recent release, the five-song “Yesterday’s News” EP. A set that seems to run on rocket fuel, it showcases a band that soars with confidence, equally adept at expressing Saturday night fury and Sunday morning reflection.


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