(Self-released, CD, digital download)
If Justin Levinson’s name has become synonymous with easy listening and Elton John covers, that’s over now. On his latest record, This Side of Me, This Side of You, he goes beyond piano-pounding crooner and breaks out of the generic indie-Americana from 2009’s Predetermined Fate. Levinson delivers a breakup album tour de force that runs the gamut from heartache serenades to funky, post-love anthems. With a full band and featured musicians, Levinson has developed a variation and dynamic that he lacked on his previous albums.
Leading with a moody piano-centric ballad, “Water Wears the Rock,” This Side starts slow but picks up quickly. “You Became a Ghost” is an indie-pop gem not unlike Owl City’s “Fireflies” or Death Cab for Cutie, circa “Crooked Teeth.” Unlike Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, who ties personal stories to generation-defining images, Levinson crafts smaller metaphors for his stories within songs.
Sonically, the record showcases a complex range. “Love You Goodbye” is bipolar, with highs and lows stretching from frustrated emo-core shouting to placid, lulling refrains. Syncopated drumbeats, courtesy of Simon Plimpton, fall perfectly with Sean Witters’ glitchy guitar layers between subtle refrains.
Snide humor and breakup bitterness go together like dark chocolate and red wine in “Bar Scene” and “I’ll Be OK.” Both songs are deliciously vaudevillian, à la the Dresden Dolls. Still, the record’s tastiest bits are served by a brass section that makes several spicy cameos. Samples on “Bar Scene” recall “Undone — the Sweater Song” from Weezer’s Blue Album. But instead of becoming emo-undone, Levinson has cabaret-style fun.
He falls a bit short, though, on the whiny ballad “Million Tears” (even if it is perfectly titled). Where Levinson’s falsetto adds a unique and quirky quality to much of the album, here it drags on inarticulately. Every album is entitled to a stinker, and for This Side, this is it. Nine out of 10 ain’t bad.
Though thematically about love gone wrong, This Side of Me, This Side of You is a fun listen. Levinson strikes a balance among sentimentality, wit and humor that would give Ben Folds a run for his money. Each song offers its own distinct color and resonates with the professional musicianship of the Valcours.
Justin Levinson and the Valcours play Radio Bean in Burlington on Saturday, March 3.