Legs Do Lowbrow Pop With an Art-School Style

The cover of Legs' debut album, Pass the Ringo, is a photograph of food compost on a pristine plate with a solid blue background. The image applies art photography composition to a distinctly low subject: garbage. It's a useful metaphor for group leader Jeffrey Harland's ramshackle approach. Pop music is traditionally an expendable form, subject to the whims and fancies of a fickle mass audience ­— and for him, that's exactly the appeal. “I've always been drawn to populist art,” he says. But in the same breath, Harland declares that “[Henri] Matisse's paper cutouts would make good pop songs.” He claims pop music is more important than contemporary painting, but then uses high-art rhetoric to describe his songwriting.

The band members appreciate the pop maxim that a hook is only as good as the accompanying instruments allow it to be — and Pass the Ringo is a triumph of nuanced songwriting. Lead single “Two Colours” features vocalist Amelia Adams, who sings, “I could sleep all day/drinking black and grey,” sounding calm and acutely in tune with the surrounding world. Her delivery is engrossing: She understates the verses, drawing listeners in, but bursts into elation during the choruses. The guitars pause in anticipation, as Matt Bullimore removes all but the most evocative notes from his lead.

Harland's art school education informs the methods he uses to construct songs and write lyrics. His vocals carry a vaguely foreign inflection, and “Two Colours” uses the chiefly British spelling. He wanted to mimic the ambiguous continental accent used by antagonists in film, but change its implication to positivity and calm. “I like to obfuscate my thoughts in an artful way … like how squinting changes the way you see things,” he explains. Harland isn't pretentious, but details the writing process like a learned visual artist defected to the lower form of pop. Of album highlight “Rounded Edges,” he says, “[It] came out of me looking at longitude and latitude lines and thinking … that any straight line I draw on my kitchen table might be imperceptibly curved.” The song, like most of Pass the Ringo, conveys Harland's amazement with mundane details of the world. For him, lines on a table represent the subjectivity of perception. He's just transposed to song what he once explored on a canvas.

Harland met guitarist Matt Bullimore in a Safeway parking lot in Oakland in 2000. They discussed Weezer, and Harland gave Bullimore a CD-R of unreleased demos for the band's self-titled Green Album. Before file-sharing ubiquity, when CD-burning software was scarce, Harland's gesture was a leap of faith. A CD-R cost $5 then, and the two remember it now as an investment in the friendship. Their initial bond was fandom — but Harland and Bullimore shifted their shared enthusiasm to a creative outlet, and eventually founded Legs.

The band self-released two digital EPs in 2011 and 2012. “We had no clue what we were doing,” says Harland, who was still learning guitar. They toiled with home recording together as eager beginners. For Pass the Ringo, released in April on local imprint Loglady, the duo sent over 100 unsolicited CD-Rs to record labels they respected, each with a unique, handwritten note about signees they admired. Most record labels don't accept unsolicited demos, and the ones that do often consider it a bothersome and outdated practice that hardly ever yields results. Pass the Ringo is a gleaming exception. Given the debut's warm critical reception, which saw music videos and interviews premiering on major websites, the small label's risk was worthwhile.

Listening to Pass the Ringo, it's easy to note the bedroom melancholy of 1980s English pop groups like Television Personalities. The stable of idiosyncratic 1980s New Zealand bands on the venerable Flying Nun imprint is also a clear influence. But Harland and Bullimore appropriate the signature guitar interplay and introspection of groups like the Bats for their own ends. They don't just rehash the instrumental style, but honor their forerunners' insistence on restraint in songwriting, the idea that not all empty space in a song must be filled and busied.

Harland and Bullimore united over fandom to create music in the distinctive pop canon they love. They are fans foremost, naively self-recording and submitting demos — but fans who nonetheless made an undeniably infectious album that continues to build interest. As Harland and Bullimore did in 2000 for Weezer, it's easy to imagine others clamoring for bootlegged demos from Legs — then starting their own band.

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