LVL UP occupies a strange space in the current indie-rock landscape—as much as the term indie rock means anything anymore. Half the band runs Double Double Whammy Records, the label responsible for Mitski’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, Eskimeaux’s O.K., and Frankie Cosmos’ Zentropy, records that helped launch some of the buzziest young bands around. LVL UP has garnered that same attention, even if it’s always on the verge of breaking up. The band has been open about the fact that, if not for signing to Sub Pop, there’s a good chance its third album, Return To Love, wouldn’t exist. Which would have been a shame, given that it’s the band’s most accomplished work to date.
From the album’s first notes, guitarist-vocalist Dave Benton is found making the most of his assorted Jeff Mangum-isms. Album opener “Hidden Driver” is part Neutral Milk Hotel and part Mount Eerie, but it’s the way LVL UP uses these influences to create something new that makes Return To Love so rewarding. Similarly, it’s when the group’s three songwriters—Benton, along with bassist-vocalist Nick Corbo and guitarist-vocalist Mike Caridi—all congeal that LVL UP settles into itself. The songwriting here is tighter and the production cleaner, the songs setting new benchmarks for what LVL UP can achieve. Even with a couple tracks (“The Closing Door” and “Blur”) taken from last year’s Three Songs EP, they’re given a fresh coat of paint that makes them far grabbier than before.
“Pain” is a prime example of the band’s ability to push a simple hook until it joyously breaks apart. The track features both the album’s biggest hook and also its most vitriolic sentiment, as Caridi sings, “I hope you’re cold / I hope you grow old and never find love / Never find love.” He repeats that last phrase for a full minute as the song’s repeated riff begins to unravel, becoming an exuberant Built To Spill-styled solo that makes all that negativity into something triumphant.
As Return To Love comes to a close, LVL UP indulges in its most ambitious, genre-bending exercise. Corbo has noted that he has a secret desire to be in a doom-metal band and, for its part, “Naked In The River With The Creator” makes that dream a reality. After the song builds an illusion of safety, a thunderous riff comes crashing in at the three-minute mark, paired with a hypnotic thunk on the drums that sounds like LVL UP’s approximation of Sunn O))). It doesn’t make a ton of sense on paper, but it perfectly summarizes what LVL UP has been working toward all along and finally achieves on Return To Love: hard-earned transcendence.
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