Dylan LeBlanc Shows Unprecedented Vocal Range and Stirring Arrangement on ‘Renegade’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The most important thing to know about Dylan LeBlanc’s Renegade is that it’s absolutely beautiful. Lush, velvety and gorgeous enough to rival anything I’ve heard this year, this ten-track collection of charmed Americana recollects songwriters like Tom Petty, Townes Van Zandt, Fleet Foxes and Fleetwood Mac. While Renegade has its stand-outs, it also possesses the kind of cohesion that allows you to just press play, confident that it harbors no duds. 

LeBlanc’s power is primarily centered in his supernatural vocal ability, a smoothly silken countertenor rivaling Chris Isaak’s buttery croon but effortlessly able to throttle into an overdriven growl or yelp at any moment. His voice has always been impressive, since he released his 2010 debut three albums ago, but on Renegade, his skills culminate in a display of unprecedented vocal range, the result of a decade of development on the road. 

The Nashville-residing, Shreveport-born LeBlanc is rooted in richly storied locales, splitting his formative years between his mom and dad’s respective homes in Austin, TX and Muscle Shoals, AL, and the settings have seeped into his discography. Renegade, LeBlanc’s fourth full-length and his first for ATO Records, retains his penchant for threading together poignantly heartbreaking narratives with that constantly developing voice, sounding like an angel serially molting into ever-more-magnificent sets of wings. This time around, however, he’s fully electrified, with all the strength and density of his road band since 2016 and best buds since childhood: Muscle Shoals stalwarts The Pollies. 

Renegade was tracked in 3 days and sent off for mastering after 10. It was mostly recorded live, each track captured in fewer than three takes in Nashville’s Studio A, and produced by Grammy Award winning Dave Cobb (Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell). The album undertakes issues of sobriety, religion, personal reflection, tragedy and all sorts of calamitous life choices. The tracks are all loosely tied to the idea of the renegade, individuals operating outside communal norms, and are inspired by numerous stories from strangers as well as LeBlanc’s own life. “I like the idea of a renegade,” says LeBlanc in a press release. “Branching off from society or from the structure of the way our world is designed…I wanted to write about the crueler, nasty aspects of the world and life.”

The album opens with its strongest sounds, its singles “Renegade” and “Born Again.” The title track, one of the first songs written for the album, has a fateful arc, zeroing in on hometown characters who chose a life off the beaten path, attempting unsuccessfully to defy the odds: a woman who resists her sister’s advice and falls for a troubled stranger, only to regret it when he winds up on the losing end of a shoot-out with the law. Taunted by lonely desert-noir vocal harmonies and hints of chiming dulcet tones, “Renegade” is driven by punchy drums patrolling the doomed tale and inspiring a feeling that it’s always nearly off the rails, that the whole thing is threatening to end up in a smoldering pile by the end of each subsequent verse.

“Born Again” features some of the loveliest vocals of the album and supremely elegant production, sounding like Fleetwood Mac reinterpreting Tom Petty. The second single spins a looser narrative than its predecessor, rhetorically philosophizing on how life can bring you to the point of utter despair and in search of a total 180. LeBlanc reflects on this requisite rebirth in press materials, musing on “wanting to be different, tired of pain and how sometimes life literally beats you into a state of submission. It literally beats you down until you’re ‘born again,’ until some sort of accordance with the universe takes place, but how everything in your past leads you up to that point.” The single kicks off with choice lyrics: “Well, it’s hard to see the past with your back up against the wall / You never had to look back ’til you didn’t like what you saw.”

There isn’t a loser among the tracks, but “Bang Bang Bang,” “Domino” and “Honor Among Thieves” truly can’t be missed. A story of tragic gun violence revealed during a conversation with a New Orleans native inspired “Bang Bang Bang,” which boasts a simple yet satisfying bass line and utterly heartbreaking tremolo-fueled guitar solo, plus intense vocals vaguely reminiscent of some transcendent power ballad from 1985. On “Domino,” LeBlanc reflects from the perspective of a stranger who shared her experiences of prostitution, featuring some of the most versatile vocals of the album, easily transitioning from smooth crooner to emotive growler. Closing track “Honor Among Thieves” tackles ancestry and immigration, with a powerful slow build from an acoustic guitar and a single vocal to a thick stirring string arrangement, eventually adding percussion and enveloping the listener in a blanket of emotions to close out LeBlanc’s best album yet.

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