Nearly three years after releasing their debut LP Space Brothers, Brooklyn favorites LVL UP are back with a new record, Hoodwink’d. And while there’s nothing wrong with the band that recorded their first album, the LVL UP you knew is dead. Long live the new LVL UP.
While Space Brothers was 22 blistering minutes of nervously pivoting from one great, yet underdeveloped, idea to the next, Hoodwink’d reigns in the band’s focus, giving each song its proper due and allowing them to build a cohesive, coherent artifact. Aside from being both sonically and thematically tighter, Hoodwink’d—more than their previous efforts—showcases LVL UP’s musicianship.
At their most energetic, guitarists Mike Caridi and Dave Benton channel any number of slacker-styled guitar heroes, including Mascis, Martsch, and Malkmus. This might make it tempting to include Hoodwink’d in the so-called “’90s throwback movement,” but it would probably be more accurate to place it in the ’70s rock throwback movement that started in the ’90s. Like the bands of that movement, LVL UP borrows the big guitars, punchy drums, and catchy song structure from the finest AM gold and spin them into something completely new.
The end result is an album bursting with slick, radio-ready pop music that still manages to retain the humble, deeply personal trappings of its lo-fi pop origins. The interplay between these two versions of LVL UP—power pop and bedroom pop—makes for the album’s most interesting moments. Songs like “I Feel Extra-Natural”, which was previously recorded by Benton’s other band Trace Mountains, slowly builds from lonely acoustic guitar to a full-on, indie rock explosion. In a way, it’s like the band is repackaging material that could be—or, in this case, actually is—from one of the members’ many other projects, like Spook Houses or Trace Mountains, in a more pop-friendly, accessible wrapping.
Take for example the opening track, “Angel From Space”. On it, the band careens through a searing pop-punk tune as bassist Nick Corbo mutters about misery in vague terms: “It’s my pick me up that someone rose above this garbage once/Old enough and drinking blood, if I pace myself I’ll waste the love.” The effect is like someone mumbling their problems under their breath, or in this case, under layers of whirring distortion. Moments like these are like a happy—or maybe unhappy—marriage of the two styles, as the band harnesses the energy of power pop to cover the dull pain in their lyrics, which hides just below the surface.
Appropriately, the most emotionally direct and powerful moment of the album is the 40-second title track “Hoodwink’d”. In it, Benton sings into a fuzzy 8-track recorder, “So am I being hoodwinked to even think that I could love you?” in a moment of unfiltered vulnerability—only to follow it with the goofy line “I think I need a soda and an order of fries to get by.” Ultimately, that’s what Hoodwink’d is all about: using quick about-faces or general obliqueness to talk about and cope with the band’s problems.
Ironically, a common theme that runs through many of Benton and Corbo’s songs is referring to their very real problems as “hexes.” In “Soft Power”, Benton sings “Now I sit at home alone, watch TV, mope on the phone/and Annie meets the moon, it is dawn in Paris though/I want to un-know the swell I felt under your hex.” And while in this context he seems to be getting at girl problems—standard fare for pop-punk—other songs on the album suggest something a bit more nuanced. In “Hex”, for example, Corbo sings, “I need a hand to cast this shit, to lift the hex between my ribs,” and in “Annie’s a Witch”, Benton sings, “Annie’s a witch moving on all fours, she took me back to where I was before/when the flowers bloomed and I got bored.” In both cases, it’s clear that Benton and Corbo are looking for help to “lift the hex.”
This pattern becomes even more apparent in songs like “Primordial Heat”, in which Benton sings, “It doesn’t take much for me to feel insane/so wash me clean and make me new again/by primordial heat of original sin, make me new again.” In this broader context, each appears to be looking for help exorcising their inner demons, which invariably manifest themselves as self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-pity. Unlike Space Brothers, which the band recently referred to as a “mixtape,” elements like this supernatural theme really tie together the members’ disparate songwriting styles.
Between constant self-referencing and its mostly abstract lyrics, Hoodwink’d clearly offers a lot to think about. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t require much thinking. Ultimately, that’s the genius of this album: it’s simultaneously a totally accessible pop record—full of catchy hooks and ripping solos—and a depressing series of existential crises. The combination of the two is an album that’s both a wonderful contradiction and a must-listen.