Heartbreaking Bravery

stevenmps2@gmail.com | @steven_mps | @hbreakbravery

Tag: micro-pop

LVL UP at Beat Kitchen – 10/12/14 (Pictorial Review, Video)

IMG_9159

Over the past few months, this site has given plenty of coverage to both LVL UP and the label two of its members founded (and run), Double Double Whammy. Included in the ranks of the Double Double Whammy roster was another artist who’s emerged as a site favorite: Mitski. When the two announced they’d be touring together (and, subsequently that LVL UP would be backing Mitski), being in attendance for the nearest show was a foregone conclusion. On October 12, their tour made its way to Chicago’s Beat Kitchen where they headlined a bill that also included local acts Mtvghosts and Staring Problem.

Mtvghosts kicked things off after narrowly avoiding being no-shows and made their way through an energetic set of Strokes-influenced powerpop (not too dissimilar from Locksley). Now a few releases into their career, they made their way through a high energy set and played off each other nicely. Utilizing an abundance of energy and a clear connection, their set succeeded on pure entertainment value- Staring Problem‘s Lauren Owen would later make an amusing remark on the vocalist’s “Paul McCartney head thing”. While it’s clear Mtvghosts have a very firm grasp on composition and how to write a good pop song, not too much of it had any kind of longevity- although there’s enough talent in the band to suggest that point may not be too far down the line.

After Mtvghosts unabashedly pop concoctions, Staring Problem dove headlong into a set of primal post-punk that was tinged with early goth-punk influences. With songs that felt deadly serious and had pulsating undercurrents of the overwhelmingly bleak, they managed to sink into a groove that left most of the audience in a hypnotic trance. Mtvghosts may have had Staring Problem beat in terms of stage presence but Staring Problem’s songs proved to be immensely gripping, if unrelentingly minimal (their drummer’s kit was bare-bones and the only cymbal it made room for was a hi-hat). Impressive bass riffs dueled with intuitive guitarwork and Owens’ tranced-out vocals. Even with an emphasis on the grave, the band found room for humor; a song called “Pictures of Morrissey In Jake’s Locker” wound up being an unexpected highlight. By the time they exited, it was difficult to imagine they hadn’t made a few converts.

Mitski‘s been making quite a name for herself lately. After two very strong records of avant pop, the songwriter’s made a sharp left turn into blissed-out noise pop. With the distortion cranked up on the extraordinary soon-to-be-released Bury Me At Makeout Creek it’s afforded Mitski the chance to reignite an already impressive career. “Townie“, “First Love/Late Spring“, and “I Don’t Smoke” all showcase layers of a seriously enviable talent in composition and musicianship (as well as some gorgeous- and expansive- production), which shouldn’t be surprising taking into account Mitski’s SUNY Purchase background. Incidentally, SUNY Purchase was where Mitski would meet the members of LVL UP and forge a connection that would have direct implications for both artist’s respective careers.

Taking into account the high-functioning levels of production that provide Bury Me At Makeout Creek part of its character, a large portion of the pre-set anticipation lay in how Mitski would bring these songs to life with the assistance of LVL UP. Less than a minute into “Townie” any doubts that the songs would lose even a fraction of their appeal were absolutely annihilated. Aided by Michael Caridi on guitar and LVL UP bassist Nick Corbo on drums, Mitski lay into the song with a startling amount of intensity, causing the audience to erupt in bewildered applause by the song’s close.

All it took was that first song for Mitski to expand and win over an entire audience, which raises the stakes considerably on the expected reaction to Bury Me At Makeout Creek once it’s out in the world. Caridi and Corbo both flashed extremely impressive chops as Mitski commanded attention with the kind of effortlessness that suggests much bigger things will be happening for the emerging artist in the very near future. When Mitski’s set closed with Mitski absolutely shredding her vocal cords in bouts of guttural screaming at the end of “Drunk Walk Home”, half the audience seemed to be left speechless- and it was difficult to fault them- Mitski had delivered the kind of set that warrants the highest kinds of praise and ensures that even more people will be drawn into her orbit.

After Mitski’s set, it wouldn’t have been too surprising to see someone leaving thinking they’d seen the headliner- but it wasn’t before long that LVL UP proved that they were up to the task of following a gift of a set with another exercise in killer performances. Having already delivered one of the year’s best records in Hoodwink’d and one of the year’s best songs, “Big Snow“, on an absolutely essential split, their live set had quite a bit to live up to. Boasting a discography that’s bursting at the seams with songs that project a casual confidence and an excess of charisma, LVL UP’s very nature is practically defined by their willingness to embrace each the unique personality of each principal songwriter (Caridi, Corbo, and Trace Mountains‘ Dave Benton).

Soft Power“, “Ski Vacation“, “DBTS“, and “I Feel Ok” all hinted at LVL UP excelling as a complementary unit that would easily function when stripped back to individual elements. Balancing on the precipice between detached apathy and unbridled energy, the band’s songs came to weird, vibrant life in the live setting. Everyone traded off vocals with a casually practiced ease and a fiery commitment. True to Space Brothers‘ form, several of the songs bled into each other- with a particular highlight (one of a very large handful) being the opening trio of tracks from that very record. In fact, much of their set played out like a contained suite, with everything retaining maximum impact.

There was more than one point through LVL UP’s set where time seemed to be completely lost, as the band kept the audience engaged while they occupied their own world. Song after song, they demonstrated just about every reason why they’re a band worth celebrating- only emphatically enhancing the live elements of that particular spread. Solos were traded, select songs were extended with surprisingly heavy bridges and outros, and- more than anything else- left-field personality was exuded. Hoodwink’d and Space Brothers were about evenly split throughout the set, and both songs from the band’s incredible split with Porches. were represented as well.

While Corbo, Caridi, and Benton all shared a fair amount of spotlight, drummer Greg Rutkin held everything down with brute force and an unfailingly exact precision that made songs like the closing “ELIXR (19)” sound absolutely massive. Just like on record, everything managed to complement everything else in a manner that made all of LVL UP’s songs feel intensely alive. Before their set, each member had voiced various concerns about their headlining slot and thanks for Beat Kitchen’s kind accommodations (including sound, which was pristine throughout the show). When “ELIXR (19)” drew the set to a powerful close, it provided an exclamation point to a stunning set that coursed past their early apprehensions into the realms of the sublime. If there was any reservation about this before, their set ensured one thing: 2014 is LVL UP’s year. Get on board before it’s too late.

Watch a clip of LVL UP playing “Soft Power” and “Bro Chillers” below. Underneath that, view an extensive photo gallery of the show.

LVL UP – Hoodwink’d (Album Review, Stream)

lvlup

Ever since LVL UP let “Soft Power” loose on the world, it was clear that they were operating on another level entirely; a really good band achieving greatness. The three songs that followed- “I Feel Ok“, “DBTS“, and “Ski Vacation“, respectively- all continued to enhance the expanding promise of Hoodwink’d, the record they were previewing. Each of the four songs had a very distinct style, lending some additional credence to the individual members’ stylistic tendencies towards creating songs that work perfectly as standalone numbers but function best as a complementary package. To that end, it’s probably not surprising that Hoodwink’d feels like a career best-of retrospective, despite the fact it’s only the band’s second full-length.

When LVL UP started, their approach was to simply write good, short pop songs. It was a winsome trait that helped establish them as New York’s finest purveyors of outsider pop- and defined Step Brothers, their outstanding introductory effort. While Hoodwink’d still operates in similar territory (the title track is 39 seconds, after all), their sonic palette is broadened considerably and allows for a step up from the band’s previously lo-fi production tactics, which winds up providing the band with a greater sense of urgency. Frequently droll (and fiercely witty) lyrics collide with a sharp immediacy and a murderer’s row of spectacular melodies in just about every one of Hoodwink’d‘s 15 songs, simultaneously one of 2014’s most diverse and unified non-compilation records.

From the drum shuffle that kicks everything off in “Angel From Space” to the fuzz-heavy feedback that draws the whole thing to its close, LVL UP inject Hoodwink’d with the sort of brazen confidence that usually suggests a band operating at the height of their powers. Throw in a sense of subtle ennui (usually manifested in the vocal performances), a seriously impressive slew of impassioned arrangements, and a staggering amount of personality and Hoodwink’d becomes even more compelling. Importantly, it should heavily resonate with a few of this generation’s subsets by virtue of being an astonishingly accurate presentation of the aspects by which they’re generally defined. All of that is circumstantial, though, and would never have come into play if it weren’t for one inescapable fact: this is an astoundingly great record.

Virtually every aspect of the band’s early promise is capitalized on in thrilling fashion, with each member consistently turning in career-best performances all throughout Hoodwink’d. These are songs that feel completely of-the-moment but have a sense of an indefinable timelessness, hinting that this may be a record with the kind of longevity most bands spend entire careers trying to produce. Whether it’s the fractured basement pop of “I Feel Extra-Natural” (which is one of several songs to feature auxiliary vocal work from Elaiza Santos), the relatively downtrodden “Hex“, or the unease-and-resolve back-and-forth of “Medication“, none of the material on display feels even remotely esoteric. Moreover, LVL UP seem to have pinpointed a new propensity for absurdly engaging material that also heavily rewards investment. All of which is just to simply state, once again (and this can’t be emphasized enough), this is an astoundingly great record

From song-to-song, there are no weak links to be found. It’s a masterpiece in miniature, something that perfectly reflects the punk-leaning micro-pop songs that are responsible for the bulk of the record. Everything that LVL UP put into Hoodwink’d seems to serve several purposes with an unfailing consistency. Even examining the aspects of the record that most cast off as unimportant, like sequencing and mastering, it’s difficult to find any glaring flaws. Sure, the brand of music the band traffics in will probably always fall into critical acclaim more easily than commercial success but that’s frequently the price of artistic integrity- something LVL UP has in spades. Ultimately, what LVL UP have wound up with isn’t just a career-making exclamation point, it’s a record that may very well wind up being viewed as one of 2014’s most definitive entries into today’s constantly shifting musical landscape- and it’s an absolute stunner.

Listen to Hoodwink’d below and order it from one of today’s best labels, Double Double Whammy (who teamed up with Exploding in Sound for this release), here.