Release Date: Sep 23, 2016
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
When a band makes the jump to working with a significantly larger record label than they have previously, it’s easy to wonder - or even worry - about what change this move will bring the band’s music. It’s the age-old dilemma that countless musicians have faced to widely varying results over the years, whether increased exposure and support will force them to relinquish a level of creative control. In the case of Purchase, New York lo-fi rock band, LVL UP, the worry would be that in moving to the indie behemoth Sub Pop Records for their third album, Return to Love, that their eclectic and jarring brand of fuzzed-out rock would be smoothed out into something more straightforward, more accessible, more predictable.
LVL UP in an anachronistic sense are heirs poised to inherit Sub Pop's "Shins mantle," a classic pop act overlapping into the Venn diagram of commercialism. But today, they're vying for a slice of pie rendered sliver narrow by the copious breadth of albums. Unfortunate, as Return to Love exhibits a surfeit of hooks, stuffed to the gills with sublime melodic instincts.
Anyone mourning the oft-declared demise of indie rock might want to tilt their ears towards LVL UP. From an opening hymn to creativity (seemingly equating inspiration with profound and/or religious experience) to its closing sludgey drones, the New York noiseniks' third full-length offering is a simultaneous exploration and celebration of the genre’s most addictive qualities. Even at the midpoint meltdown of Pain’s insistent fuzz-mangling, it's all sumptuously glazed with a thick veneer of moreish melody and buzzing hooks.
The release of New York indie rock quartet LVL UP’s latest album Return to Love hinged on an ultimatum. After years toiling as linchpins in the city’s DIY scene, playing in a half dozen other scummy pop acts, and with half of the band running the small but influential label Double Double Whammy, they decided that they'd had enough. The rock project that Dave Benton and Mike Caridi launched with their college buds—drummer Greg Rutkin and bassist/singer Nick Corbo—would either have to get good enough to draw the attention of a bigger indie label (“Sub Pop, Merge, or Matador,” they said in a recent interview) or call it quits entirely.
After two albums that established them as pretty solid practitioners of indie rock done straight '90s style, LVL UP made the big jump to Sub Pop for their third record, Return to Love. To be on the same label as Eric's Trip must be a good feeling for the New York foursome. They also could have been on early-'90s-era Matador due to their debt to Pavement, Up Records because of their similarities to Built to Spill, or really any label that liked to release fuzzy, home-cooked albums by scruffy college-aged kids who were able to balance a love of noise and melody.
Lvl Up are a quartet of Brooklyn dudes with their own style of exuberant guitars-are-go momentum. They've put out an impressive pile of recordings on their own Double Double Whammy label, but their fantastic third album (and Sub Pop debut) Return To Love is a real head-spinning breakthrough – full of scruffily dazed romanticism, weirdly pastoral even though there's plenty of urban grime in their fuzz pedals. Their sound might evoke Nineties bands like Built To Spill, Sebadoh or Neutral Milk Hotel, but with three singer-songwriters on the case, Lvl Up hit grandly emotional highs whether they're singing deadpan odes to spooky girls ("The Closing Door") or cosmic mysteries ("Hidden Driver") or both ("Spirit Was").
New York’s LVL UP crash into their third album - and first on the legendary Sub Pop - wearing influences proudly on their sleeve. ‘Return to Love’’s opening track ‘Hidden Driver’ vividly recalls the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel and The Microphones, noted as some of the band’s major inspirations. But following that, it’s a work that branches out into a much more varied range of styles, not threatening to enter pastiche territory.
Do you believe in God? Are there moments where you aren’t at least a little convinced that the thump in your chest isn’t guided by some cosmic purpose? On their third album and official Sub Pop debut, LVL UP ask about the divine, angelic aspects of their own inspiration, as the guys draw close the spiritual qualities of the transcendent world around them. Now five years into their existence and knee-deep in the shaky tumult of their twenties, the four-piece find themselves falling out of friendships, rolling on through spats of depression, and cobbling together 10 fuzz-drenched tracks that, beneath all else, unite the voices of the four members into the sound and feeling of a cohesive, symbiotic whole. Passing the mic between bandmates, Mike Caridi, Dave Benton, and Nick Corbo each contribute vocal lines, eased together with a rich lo-fi that even major label shareholders can’t seem to smooth.
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.