LVL UP work out the dilemma of which ‘90s rock-based subculture they want to join the effort to revive.Sub Pop, 2016
7.4 / 10
In the ongoing multi-media renaissance that is “streaming content,” it often seems that what we’re subjected to is based considerably upon the platform through which we consume it. Rather than watching television or movies, now we ambiguously watch Netflix, which translates to a mixture of the previously separate media served to us within the confines of a heavily mediated environment. Similarly, Spotify curates its library based on which artists or labels are willing to submit themselves to the paywalled streaming Mecca. At a point in history when media is almost literally throwing itself at its audience, it seems unthinkable to try to reach listeners outside of such an accessible framework.
But beyond the reach of most streaming music troughs lies a vibrant culture of artists who never made a name for themselves outside of their hometown, who posted demos, 7” splits, and, if lucky, a full album on their Bandcamp page before calling it quits and seemingly falling off the face of the earth. To non-natives of these artists’ locales, they existed only in relation to pay-what-you-want downloads and lower-tier music blog posts, receiving an occasional nod from Pitchfork courtesy of a friend of a friend of a friend. Though many of these artists’ discographies ultimately surfaced on popular streaming platforms, their sound never evolved from a lo-fi aesthetic thematic of the Bandcamp community, a self-imposed lower class status in this weird new social structure further convoluted with every new development in the storied tale of music business and technology.
Such were the cases of now-legendary east coast rockers Spook Houses and their jortsy brethren LVL UP, whose fates have been preserved in part by the growing influence of shared member Dave Benton’s own DIY-minded label Double Double Whammy. While LVL UP accomplished the irregular feat of producing a follow-up LP in 2014, complete with praise from a slew of major web publications, the real surprise came this year when the four-piece signed to Sub Pop in the midst of understandably severe existential unrest and released a third record, the notably un-Bandcampy Return to Love.
As their first major label release, it isn’t entirely surprising to note the not-so-subtle shift from their signature minute-long interchangeable bursts of energy to a more coherent thesis concerned with the increasingly prevalent question: why did we ever move on from the ‘90s? Return opens with a familiar scuzzy guitar strum indicative of a jaunt denouncing fornication, which effectively introduces an album guided by guitar-navigated joyrides-of-Martsch and rife with jaded Malkmusings. Citing Merge and K Records – along with Sub Pop – as major influences throughout their career, LVL UP spends the first half of the album working out the dilemma of which ‘90s rock-based subculture they want to join the effort to revive: lo-fi, slacker, and grunge all make their voices heard over the course of forty-two minutes with no definitive front-runner.
Yet somewhere around the beefed-up reiteration of “The Closing Door” from last year’s Three Songs EP, LVL UP regain something of an original voice – perhaps not that of their two previous records, but one which doesn’t necessitate homage. In fact, the preceding “Pain” serves as a severing of ties with their ‘90s idols (the opening anticipatory drones and slow build indicate a post-Titus Andronicus existence despite undeniable nods to Built to Spill), who become more of a jumping off point than an incessantly cited source of nostalgia for the livelihood of rock music in its final legitimate chapter. Continuing its consistent contradiction of successive high and low-energy ballads, “Five Men on the Ridge” capitalizes on the grungy conclusion of “Pain” while “Cut From the Vine” remedies the hostility, though it’s clearly cut from the same cloth.
Closing with a soothing, seven-minute send-off (approximately one-third the length of their debut), “Naked in the River with the Creator” punctuates Return to Love with the recurrent solemnity inherent throughout the record. The band has remained dependent on such miserabilia as shame, heartache, and supernatural intervention for their often cryptic lyrical content, but something about the vastly improved production value and clarity of ideas disrupts what once came off as ironic (see tracks “Bro Chillers” and “*_*” from Space Brothers) with pure sentimentality, the droning “Naked” proving the perfect backdrop for this shift in tone. For their debut as a Spotify-quality band, Return is everything it should be – coherent, well-mixed, properly marketed, deeply rooted in the current revivalist trends – but the nagging murmurs of “rosebud” echo in each remission to the peer pressure of ill-fitted flannels and regrettably symmetrical hair parts.