If Dave Benton — the guitarist for Brooklyn indie-rock band LVL UP — had his way, the group would trade in their drum kits and six-strings for accordions and tubas on their next tour.
“We were talking about changing up our approach a bit,” says Benton, who will play at Bottom of the Hill on Wednesday, March 8. “I’m going to push for full polka.”
Fans of LVL UP probably don’t have to worry about the group embracing Eastern European roots music any time soon, but it’s easy to see why Benton has such bemused opinions about the band’s future.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, LVL UP is devotional to the tenants of indie-rock titans, like Pavement, Built to Spill, and, most notably, Neutral Milk Hotel. Now, with the cultural winds shifting more toward pop and R&B, some may question how long the group will remain committed to core guitar rock aesthetics that, in the past half-decade, have vanished from most channels.
“I do get a little self-conscious at times,” Benton says. “We made some mindful decisions to emulate certain bands, and it’s easy to see how we could have used different tones for certain songs. That said, we were really excited to explore those sounds, and I think that shows.”
Anyone who accuses LVL UP of being derivative or lacking ingenuity is underselling this band big-time. While they enthusiastically appropriate their influences, LVL UP brings a refreshing take on the indie classics, and with three different songwriters — Benton, bassist Nick Corbo and guitarist Mike Caridi — the band has a variety that belies their singular genre of choice.
On their latest album, 2016’s Return to Love, the group took a giant leap forward, embracing a heavy aural tenor that raised the bar from their prior record, the loveable, but low-stakes Hoodwink’d.
Return to Love album opener “Hidden Driver” is a driving fuzz-folk number that would fit perfectly on Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island. “Pain” is a cathartic, searing guitar opus in the vein of Built to Spill. And “Naked in the River with the Creator,” is a towering epic, combining the woozy atmospherics of Spiritualized with the ambitious sludge-rock of Dinosaur Jr.
It’s easy to track the precedent for each song, but LVL UP’s earnest interpretations of its idols come off as exalting, not lazy. Corbo said it would be dishonest and false to embark on different sounds purely for the sake of being contrarian.
“Unless you’re some sort of immaculate channel and are doing something completely new and avant-garde all the time, you’re inherently going to sound like others,” he says. “But we’re different conduits and different people, so there is a different flavor to it. For me, it’s mostly getting pumped on a sound and wanting to try it out.”
It helps to have three different voices imparting three different styles throughout the album. Corbo and Benton both employ a sluggish, baritone vocal approach, evoking the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Caridi’s songs ring out a little higher, offering a crisper, less-sardonic alternative.
All three are accomplished songwriters, each providing equally memorable tracks to Return to Love. Complementing each other adroitly, the differing contributions act as palate cleansers for the songs that precede and succeed them.
Making the album even more noteworthy is the trio’s commitment to evocative, weighty lyricism. In contrast to the breezy insouciance that defines indie songwriters like Britt Daniel and Stephen Malkmus, LVL UP’s lyricists are unafraid to tackle heavy issues, with Benton weighing in on spirituality and God in “Hidden Driver,” and Caridi addressing sexual assault and bitterness in “Pain.” On “She Sustains Us,” Corbo sings a lilting, simple love ballad, but its irony-free tone sets it apart from other tunes of its ilk. “Five Men on the Ridge,” another effort from Benton, recalls Cormac McCarthy with its barren, scorched-earth imagery and mystic musings.
Collectively, the work of LVL UP makes for a singular listening experience — one that certainly wouldn’t be categorized as staid or worn-out. Listeners and critics are starting to realize that too, which would explain how LVL UP landed on the 2016 Best Of lists for publications like Rolling Stone and Paste Magazine, and why revered indie label Sub Pop signed them to a multi-album deal.
Hopefully, all these promising developments will help Benton reconsider pivoting toward polka.
“I have low self-esteem, so when I see people hating, it kind of hurts,” Benton says. “But looking back on everything, I really am proud of what we did.”
LVL UP play at 9 p.m., Wednesday, March 8, at Bottom of the Hill. More info here.
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