(OutTake Records, CD)
New England's cultural (and paved) highways seem to converge in Boston, Massachusetts. The city certainly offers more musical opportunities than Justin Levinson's hometown of Vergennes. The young songwriter is currently attending Beantown's prestigious Berklee College of Music, and will graduate this spring. He gives us a glimpse of his abilities with his debut disc, 1175 Boylston.
Ex-Pavement honcho Stephen Malkmus once wrote, "A voice coach taught me to sing - he couldn't teach me how to love." The statement surely applies here. Levinson's songs are finely sculpted, with horns, vibraphone, background vocals, organs and ukuleles dancing around the songwriter's bouncy piano and pitch-perfect vocals. This well-tossed musical salad tells tales of Levinson's life in Vermont and Boston. Unfortunately, the album skimps on an all-important detail: passion.
Opener "Sunny Day" is particularly well put together, but lacks zest. With its glossy trumpets and smooth vibraphone, the tune sounds like a modern take on '70s soft-rockers Chicago. Apparently, it came in fifth place at this year's Berklee Songwriters Showcase. Regardless of the accolades, it fails to convey much in the way of real emotion. In it, Levinson sings about the contention that stems from a lover's inability to find happiness. Making such feelings resonate with listeners, however, is not something that can be taught.
This clinical approach continues throughout the record. Still, a few tunes leave an impression. "If We Get Lost," which recollects a chance encounter on a public bus, boasts a warm, infectious melody. In "City With Two Street Lights," Levinson collaborates with childhood friend and fellow Berklee student Adam Popick. The song features rambling piano, abundant hooks and staccato vocals reminiscent of Texas songwriter Ben Zweller.
In addition to Popick's contributions, Levinson gets some help from his multi-instrumentalist father. The senior Levinson is a well-known music teacher in the Champlain Valley who once played in pop-rock mastermind Todd Rundgren's band.
Overall, 1175 Boylston is a good display of Levinson's songwriting skills. Let's just hope that on future releases he matches craftsmanship with spirit.