Album Review: Neon Leon – 1979-84 Singles Collection

Here’s one out of left field. I’ll admit a complete lack of knowledge of Neon Leon, but even a few seconds into “Rock ‘N Roll is Alive,” the opening track on this new compilation from HoZac Records, I realized what I had been missing. Imagine Mott the Hoople crossed with New York Dolls, and you’ll have a rough sense of the musical perspective of this Black artist form the Big Apple. This collection brings together eight tunes, each of which has the raw energy and enduring spirit of rock, with plenty of punk energy. When Leon screams before the guitar break in “X-Rated,” you’ll believe that he means it, maaaannn.

“Girls, Guns & Money” feels like a more melodic take on the kind of thing Jim Carroll did. The spare “Noh Time” feels like a demo, and shows the reggae side of Leon’s artistry. It’s less interesting than the other tracks, but still worthwhile. Much better is the steamrolling rock blast of “Moving in the right Direction.” Some hint as to who plays what and when would have been nice, but ultimately, the music speaks doe itself. As the saying goes, there are a million musical stories in the naked city, and this is one of the better unheralded ones.

Todd Novak’s q&a with the man himself provides some useful context, including some background on how Leon nearly hit the big time thanks to an association with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (Mick did sing – if exceedingly briefly – on Leon’s cover of “Heart of Stone,” included here; its bootleg quality and sloppy instrumentation are odd outliers on this compilation of well-played, well-produced tracks.) The inner sleeve features some great black-and-white photos that hint at what it must’ve been like there and then.