This Side of Me This Side of You
Independent release, 2012
REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/10/2012
Vermont-based indie pop artist Justin Levinson has teamed up with the Valcours and offered This Side Of Me This Side Of You. Levinson’s style has been likened to Ben Folds’ most prominently, because of his piano-driven songwriter style. Some also say that his concoction pulls in influences from The Beatles and Elton John. Thus, when I was sent Levinson’s album, I was intrigued. He is the recipient of numerous songwriting awards, and his songwriting centers around the piano, which is a particular favorite of mine. Yet with many indie artists, it is hard to research their careers and really get a sense of where their place is in the music constellation because just about everything written on them is either done by the artist themselves or by a concert promoter. So I went in cold.
Side pulls together a collection of breakup songs played mostly in the piano rock format. The production is tight and crisp, but it is laden with gimmicky effects on several songs (did we really need the ghost cackle on “You Became A Ghost,” or could the windy organ that plays in the song done the trick?). The overall problem is that the songwriting lacks direction in the lyrics department. Structurally they are very good, with sometimes catchy melodies, good bridges, excellent guitar solos, and impeccable harmonies. Yet there are no songs that grab you and say, “Yes! THIS is what I'm talking about.” It takes work to understand the lyrics due to an unrelenting barrage of metaphors that make trying to understand the song more like studying for the LSAT.
The metaphorically titled “Water Wears The Rock” is the only breakup song on the album that comes off as whiny, but it is redeemed by being tightly written melodically with a good piano with guitar solo. “Bar Scene” uses the sound effect of the noise of a crowded bar for a long enough duration that it almost makes you believe that it is a live recording. But as Levinson hits the bridge it is instantly ripped away like a Band-Aid. Brass and cheerfully funny lyrics in the middle mask the darkness of the point before slowing down and bringing back the crowd noise to bring it on home. Again with the overuse of effects, this song is also interspersed with what sounds like a couple of old movie quotes, which really do not add to the song.
Despite falling short lyrically on this album, Levinson has to get credit for trying to break outside of the straightforward pop patterns that have emerged in the last 20 years. “I'll Be OK” evokes a circus or parade feel. Despite overdoing it again on the metaphoric hyperbole (“I'm a sinking submarine / And the only thing I know is that love is a pyramid scheme,” and something about fighting a duel at ten paces and shooting a hat off), the change of pace is a welcome diversion. The circus theme continues in the next track with “I Was So Wrong” which features the beautiful voice of Liz Longley. The female voice is a breath of fresh air, and the waltz time is as refreshing in today’s pop world as Dave Brubeck’s Time Out was in the 1950’s.
The absolute standout on Side is “Say What You're Gonna Say,” which is enchanting. This track channels the best of early 70s Motown soul but with an “I'm gonna cry” spoiled teenager spin. Levinson utilizes his entire, impressive vocal range in this Marvin Gaye-esque vocal performance, ranging from the high falsetto to a nice baritone. This was the one song I found myself humming.
This Side Of Me This Side Of You was a decidedly mixed experience for me. The musicianship and vocal talent are clearly present, and it is packaged in production that, with the exception of the sound effects, is crisp and well done. And despite being buried under the onslaught of metaphors, I am tempted to dig myself out and check out some of Levinson’s other work to see where he has been and where he is headed.