(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

CD review - Justin Levinson and the Valcours, This Side of Me, This Side of You (2012)

Optimistic acceptance and effortless hooks

Like Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne, Justin Levinson has an intuitive sense for cheery, uptempo pop and effortless hooks. The production on This Side of Me, This Side of You is slick and polished to a shine that primarily reflects Levinson's singer-songwriter style and open personality. Where Folds or FoW can never resist throwing in their trademarked irony, Levinson delivers each track with a direct simplicity.

This imbues the album with an optimistic acceptance. Even when the songs wander familiar trails of breakups and loss, Levinson's breathy vocals never engage the pain. On Water Wears the Rock, the title line serves as a philosophical bandaid:
Love isn't what you thought
Because eventually the water wears the rock...
All the while, the music bounces to a retro poppy groove with hints of easy listening jazz. The bridge music builds into an affirmation that promises it will all work out, even if the lyrics aren't quite sure. The contrast suggests a Buddhist resolution, allowing for the conflict but not being tied to it.

My favorite track, You Became a Ghost, covers similar ground. The chorus talks betrayal but the music isn't burdened:
So cue the spot light and strike a pose
Blame the ones you love, hide behind your vintage clothes
In my darkest hour, when I needed you the most
You became a ghost
The synth strings soften the blows and the production almost sounds triumphant. This mix of light and dark seems to be Levinson's sweet spot.

For all of the poppy sweetness, Levinson's music has a nice depth to it, avoiding cliched 1-4-5 structures. So the songs stand up to repeated listenings. His band, the Valcours, don't inject a lot of personality to compete with the vocals, but like a good set of studio musicians, their competence and tasteful additions round out the arrangements. The songs aren't locked into a formula. One can pair a simple piano with a light Americana guitar and add a dusting of strings to set up a clean ballad feel (Let You Go). Another has the perfect jaunty bass and horns to match Levinson's vaudevillian vocals (I'll Be Ok).

Maybe Levinson is hiding his anguish, but his unapologetic cheer sounds fresh. Give him a listen and see what you think.

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