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Photo by Kate Miller

The last 15 months or so have been quite a trial for Left Arm Tan. In that span, the rough-hewn purveyors of top-down, sing-along Americana road music have undergone a significant lineup shakeup and faced more than one member suffer a hobbling injury – one a hip that required surgery, and another with a slipped disk in his back. There have been personal bouts to contend with on top of all that as well. Despite the recent roadblocks, the band is entering its 10th year together and has released new music, and there’s even a short documentary series chronicling the making of that music. They feel that, through it all, they’re in exactly the right spot.

“This last year has been a very tumultuous year for everyone in the band,” frontman Brian Lee said. “Just about everybody had something major going on in their lives – the types of hardships that just shouldn’t happen.

“But as any songwriter will tell you, the worst thing that can happen to a songwriter is happiness – or peace,” he said with a laugh. “It’s through the battle and the storms that the most creative ideas come.”

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The band dropped the results of coming through these storms this past Tuesday in the form of a new album. The guys in LAT refer to the new collection of songs as the “Rising Phoenix” record, though the album is officially self-titled, much the same way The Beatles’ or Weezer’s S/T offerings are known colloquially as the “White Album” or the “Blue Album,” respectively. A vibey vintage-looking flaming falcon graphic adorns the album’s cover as both an allusion to the band’s triumph over the last year’s turmoil and perhaps a subconscious nod to the famous “Screaming Chicken” decal emblazoned on the hood of the Pontiac Firebird muscle car, a high-octane aesthetic that matches the band’s penchant for music befitting the open road.

Toward the end of 2018, founding member and co-frontman Troy Austin and bassist Paul Jenkins each left the band for different reasons. Not only did this place more lead vocal weight on the shoulders of Lee – who in his previous five years with the group shared that role equally with Austin in a sort of Henley/Fry or Lennon/McCartney way – but it also brought on a rough period of inconsistency with the lineup. A rotation of players would come in and out before Jenkins was finally permanently replaced by Joseph Lopez. 

In addition to Lopez, multi-instrumentalist Mark Belding (dobro, pedal steel, trumpet) and guitarist/keyboardist Shawn Light also joined Lee and two other founding members, guitarist Daniel Hines and drummer Tim Manders. The quintet solidified the band’s membership in a way Lee said he believed was always meant to be.

“For a couple of months, it was sort of up in the air as to, ‘Gosh, are we even gonna keep doing this thing?,’ ” Lee said. “But when Shawn and Joe came along, everything just clicked. We finally have the lineup that’s right.”

Lee credits how well the guys get along for this feeling. Some of that kinship is displayed in Rising Phoenix, An Americana Rockumentary, a mini-doc series available on YouTube, created by filmmaker Jacob Sizemore. Through the series’ three episodes, Sizemore follows the band rehearsing for and recording the “Phoenix” album, as well as featuring interviews with the members and footage of them just hanging out and cutting up, with lots of hazing of Belding, the band’s “token millennial.”

Though the group likes to keep it loose and humorous, many of the songs on the new album document the serious challenges the members have faced over the last year. Songs like “Stars and City Lights” and “Pawn Shop Heart” are sentimental and autobiographical, while the moving “Alpha Bravo” puts Lee in the perspective of friends of his who are veterans struggling with PTSD.

Unlike on previous albums, where Lee can recall almost every detail of how a song developed, the songwriter feels these songs just came out of nowhere, perhaps because of the tumult.

“This was like a reverse mirage,” he said. “The whole year we’re thinking, ‘There’s nothing here, there’s nothing here.’ Then we get into the studio, and suddenly it’s like, ‘Holy shit! There’s something here, and it’s pretty good. This is amazing!’ ”

Left Arm Tan will celebrate the release of “Rising Phoenix” on Jan 24 at Twilite Lounge on the Near Southside. 

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