Reviewed: Look a Little Closer by Levek
(Lefse, September 2012)
Look a Little Closer, the debut album by Levek, the nom de (soft) rock of Floridian singer-songwriter David Levesque, is easily one of the most original Southern long-players of the past 365 days, despite essentially being an aggregate of recognizable (if imaginary) references: Gary “Love is Alive” Wright on ’ludes, Seals & Crofts fronting Ohio Players, Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles remixed by Moby. But describing music via references can lead to ambiguity (and is kind of lazy). Look a Little Closer is way more enveloping, way more expansive, and way more aesthetically generous than just a succession of famous quotes. The ten-track journey is beautiful, in the traditional sense, like a beachside sunset or a unicorn with rainbow hair.
“Twee” is often a pejorative, but the term is wonderfully apt here. Built mostly around twinkling guitars and keys, Levesque’s airy, winsome voice, and beats that range from being snappy enough to set hips to shakin’ to being as brittle as glass, the songs are soft, bright, and inoffensive (don’t call them “bourgeois”), with woodwinds and strings stopping by occasionally to complete the wistful spell that the band has cast.
What, specifically, do Levesque and his accompanists hearken to? The album’s layered, tubular production quality and the organic and organic-sounding instrumentation are far from what you’d consider “contemporary.” One possible answer may be South America. “Terra Treasures,” a no-frills bossa nova tune replete with a solo on a Hammond B-3 and another on the vibes, grooves to that swaying, sun-dappled rhythm we all know and (probably) love—delicate eighth-note cymbal work and clave-patterned rim shots, a güiro snarling along playfully in the background, and simple, jazzy chordal progressions on electric guitar and keys. Floating overhead is Levesque’s voice, echoing slightly and distant à la João Gilberto and Tom Jobim but inhabiting lyrics that are anything but pop-y or accessible. In the song, a familiar is advised to “crawl into the fiery stone” to rid his or her hair of “sticks and feathers” and to “make a golden sound to follow her around with.” Bossa terra nova, maybe? Latin spice also pulses beneath “Muscat Mingle,” an instrumental of clicking and clacking polyrhythmic percussion flavored with a light-heartedly tweeting borrindo and a spooky, carnivalesque accordion-led refrain.
Another sub-sub-genre to which Levek throws back—subtly, but still—is psychedelia, a style brought to its apotheosis by The Fab Four, Hendrix, Floyd, the Airplane, and other hippies in the mid 1960s and that, except for in the ’80s and ’90s, has remained relevant. The lead track, “Black Mold Grow,” a song about, well, fungal infection, may be driven by splashy, head-bobbing drums, but the lovely Beatlesesque aaah-ah-aaah’ing is what stands out. (In an annoying hipster move straight out of 2007, the gorgeous chorus that starts with “look a little closer” is heard only once and is never repeated. Meh.)
Levek even dips into smoove jazz. “Can’t Buy This Love” basically consists of one phat beat dancing across a flat, ethereal soundscape beneath a single rhythmic theme—the only lyric, “Can’t buy this love,” is sung through a vocoder, transforming an otherwise workaday r&b joint into an intriguing, dreamlike techno meditation.
Levek gets cute with the production wizardry only a couple of times, most notably on “Solemn Feeling Forever Healing,” an out-and-out neo-disco number composed of percolating beats of a thousand different timbres and a single lyric, the song’s title, riding an undulating melody and repeated several times. On the only other heavily techno-influenced jam, the closer “French Lessons”—a whistling synth figure bouncing along on tippy toes like an ornamental-flute riff from 1750—is actually bruised by Levesque’s singing. Not that his voice sucks—his wispy tenuity never gives in to any uncomfortable emotions, but is just A-OK, certainly unique. The vocal measure is simply understated to the point of infinitesimalism.
For all of the references we can trot out for the sake of description, Look a Little Closer is, at its core, a work of folk music. Reportedly about a young girl coming to terms with her mental illness (or with the effects of “black mold”?), the album includes one of the prettiest ditties you’ll hear all year, the Society for Creative Anachronisms-approved “Canterbury Bell.” Weaving in and out of a gay, skipping melody plucked out on acoustic guitar, Levesque’s fine voice looks down beatifically on the reverberating strings like one of Raphael’s putti and sings sweetly, “You hide it well / Wash it all away, I’ll never tell / And it’s,” now in a crisp falsetto, “all because of Can-terbury Bell.”
Another unadorned folk tune, “With a Slow Burn,” is also the album’s weirdest and creepiest track. The lyrics, served on a bed of bubbly acoustic and what sounds like a gurgling water fountain, suggest a sexual power-play, which does not jibe with the mystical, trippy-dippy, Lord of the Rings-ish vibe that permeates all of the other tunes. And, y’know, their conceptual underpinnings. “I saw you tannin’ on the roof the other day,” Levesque sings, “as naked as the rain upon the sea.” On an album in which—true to the artist’s statement issued by Levesque—young women figure prominently, the voyeurism can be somewhat off-putting. And the cautionary refrain of “Just try to slip away from me / You’ll understand what pain can be” doesn’t help.
The good news is that unlike some other denizens of The Shire—like Midlake, whose 2006 opus, The Trials of Van Occupanther, was all about an American frontiersman with undiagnosed depression and a chick who reads Leviathan—Levek does not back itself into a stylistic corner. An open mind, preferably one encased in headphones attached to a hi-fi turntable spinning a vinyl copy of Look a Little Closer, is advised for optimal listening pleasure.