Thursday, February 23, 2006

Justin Levinson

In this week's issue of Seven Days, I wrote a review of Justin Levinson's debut album, 1175 Boylston. I thought the review was fairly middling but it hit upon an issue that I feel strongly about.

In the review, I stated how I thought the album was well crafted but felt that it failed to make an emotional connection with the listener. Music isn't a beauty contest. It doesn't matter how polished or well arranged a song is if it doesn't make you feel anything emotionally. The delivery of emotion is the entire reason we are music fans. People want to feel something...joy, anger, rage, love, etc. They want something to prick them from their daily numbness. Good songs puncture that veil of passionless detachment.

I'm not a musician so I have no idea how a songwriter or musician goes about conveying those feelings through song. However, as a music fan, I'm confident that I know it when I feel it. I also know that it doesn't necessarily require a perfectly orchestrated studio and mixing session to generate that passion. Sam Beam can pull it off sitting in house with just an acoustic guitar and a microphone. And conversely, Sigur Ros can do it with grand choreographed flair.

My point is that just because a song or album is well written, sung in perfect pitch, expertly arranged and flawlessly executed doesn't mean it's a good song. As David Berman sang, "All my favorite singers couldn't sing." Production quality isn't good or bad...it just doesn't matter.

So, whether or not I explained my point well in the review, that was the main issue surrounding this album. Levinson is obviously an incredibly talented fellow and exhibited that talent on this album. And in my brief exchange of emails with him, he appears to be a very nice guy. Being talented and kind will certainly serve him well in the future.

The odd twist in this story occurred today when someone from Levinson's record label OutTake Records (I couldn't find a link; if anyone knows their url, please let me know) sent me the following email:

Mr. Murphy,

Thank you so much for taking the time to review Justin's debut album, 1175 Boylston. Minus the typos regarding song names and band references, and the misinformation regarding Justin's father and his work with Tod, I thought it was a really well thought out review with well-supported arguments as to Justin's "total lack of emotion." Thank you so much for dumping on a local songwriter trying to put together a first album. Whether it's your prejudice against Berklee and how they teach, or your prejudice against mainstream powerpop music in general, you really did a great job of making both show through your writing. We realize that an artist takes a chance by first making a record, and second sending it out to get reviewed by people who may not like it for a multitude of reasons. However, I think you unfairly criticized Justin's songs by emphasizing his lack of musical passion throughout the CD. It was a two-year-long process of love that made the record happen, and you crapping all over it was just not justified.

much love

apops
OutTake Records


Quite frankly, I was surprised they thought the review was so harsh to the album. I felt I had spent a fair amount of time praising Levinson's craftmanship. The big negative point I made was the issue I discussed above. It's an honest portrayal of my opinion of the album.

So, I wanted to respond to a few of the points OutTake raised in their email:

Minus the typos regarding song names and band references

You're right. Typos are sloppy but they happen. It's OK. The important thing is whether or not I got my point across. It's like songs. They don't have to be beautiful to be good.

the misinformation regarding Justin's father and his work with Tod

What were you saying about typos? Sorry, that was a cheap shot.

Seriously, I had exchanged emails with Justin prior to the review regarding his father's music experience. Based upon those emails I thought Levinson's father had played with Todd Rundgren. I'm sorry about the mistake.

Thank you so much for dumping on a local songwriter trying to put together a first album.


Just because a songwriter is local or releasing their first album doesn't mean that they are immune from criticism. In fact, I think it's probably best for a new artist to hear the truth about their music at the beginning of their career. How would it help Levinson if I had not suggested an area of improvement simply because he is from Vermont and was releasing his first album? Wouldn't you rather have him hear these comments now?

Whether it's your prejudice against Berklee and how they teach

For good or bad, I really don't know much about Berklee or how they teach. I know it's a music school in Boston but that's about it.

or your prejudice against mainstream powerpop music in general

This one is crazy. If you read through this blog, you will see that I love, love, love pop music. You can also check out my Last.FM page to see further evidence of my enchantment with pop music. To say that I didn't like 1175 Boylston because I don't like pop is like saying Johnny Cash didn't like a shirt because it was black.

I think you unfairly criticized Justin's songs by emphasizing his lack of musical passion throughout the CD. It was a two-year-long process of love that made the record happen, and you crapping all over it was just not justified.

Your last statement is the perfect synopsis of my entire issue with the album. Just because it took two years to make the album doesn't mean that it's a good album. Effort and expert musical manufacturing are not vital ingredients in good music. The history of rock music is littered with songs that were written and recorded in one day and went on to blow fans away.

Finally, as a record label, I'd suggest not sending reviewers angry emails everytime one of your artists receives a less than gushing review. Over the course of anyone's career there are going to be good and bad reviews. You should look upon all of them as publicity. They got your artist's name out there which is still valuable. Sending an angry email will only cement the reviewer's opinion against the artist. Thankfully, I won't hold it against Levinson since I like him. Plus, I thought your email was pretty funny.

You can stream a few songs from 1175 Boylston here and here.

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow -- sounds like "OutTake Records" is really Levinson in disguise. Thanks for being honest - no need to let the pap flow upwards!

Flatlander said...

I don't know if that's true. I just can't find a link for the label.

Anonymous said...

I understand no one likes being criticized, but...holy cow, what a pussy. Two years of love? Some people can spend their whole lives trying to create something and it still won't amount to anything. Miles Davis did Kind Of Blue in one take. Either you have it or you don't and I don't give a shit whether you came from the same block in Montpelier or Mars.

"I remember a time when music had balls and music had soul."
-the late Bill Hicks

Flatlander said...

Calling OutTake a pussy is too harsh. I'm guessing Levinson himself wouldn't want his label responding to critics this way but that's between him and his label.

OutTake and I just disagree with each other about the album and the necessary ingredients for a good album. The fact is there are people out there that would side with their view of music and that's great. Whatever makes people happy.

The blog Absolute Powerpop gave 1175 Boylston a very favorable review.

Anonymous said...

Why send your record out for review if you are not prepared to deal with being reviewed?

Flatlander said...

For some reason, there is a perception in central VT that Seven Days only writes favorable reviews. When I mention to people that I've written reviews for Seven Days, I've heard comments back like, "Oh, those guys like everything."

I don't know where that perception comes from because I've read some pretty scathing reviews in that paper. Regardless, I wonder if that perception played a role in OutTakes reaction to the review.

Anonymous said...

VT Green Says-

Further proof that record lables are run by thin skinned scum. The review was critical but constructive not harsh. It was tame compared to the ass whupping some other artists endure every damn day on blogs and from other critics.

Flatlander said...

Saying that they are thin-skinned is one thing but calling them scum is wrong and mean-spirited. OutTake hasn't done anything unethical. They just strongly disagreed with my review and let it be known.

Anonymous said...

Just finished listening to some of the links. This guy sounds like Danny from the god damn Partidge Family. This passes for indie rock? You have got to be kidding me. Scary part is there is probably a main stream market for this stuff. Watch out Brittney Spears, Justin is coming on strong.

Flatlander said...

The guy from Absolute Powerpop liked the album so there is a market out there for him. The question is how big that market is. I may be in the minority or the majority. I have no idea.

nico said...

If there's one thing I learned in my 5 years or so in the music business, it is this:

IT IS BRUTAL.

It doesn't matter if you work in production, performance, marketing, or whatever, it's an ugly business. At some point you're going to get taken advantage of, put down, lied to, etc. I know these things happen in all lines of work, but from what I can tell, the entertainment versions of those ugly truths are particularly grim.

I wish it weren't so, but that's the way it is and if you want to participate in that biz, you've got to own up to the ugliness of a lot of it and just flat out deal with it.

I burned out on the bullshit after 5-6 years and that's why I'm switching careers to something a bit less confrontational.

It's okay to not be able to take it, but you've got to know it's coming. If you don't like the heat, stay out of the kitchen and just play local coffee shops where the 15 people that buy your self produced record will think you're the baddest ass thing to ever come down the road.

nico said...

Wow. My comment came off a lot harsher than I meant.

Eek!

Suffice it to say that sending out a record for review is taking a chance, just like asking someone out on a date. It might turn out the way you want, it might not, but you've got to roll with the punches and press on.

There, that's tamer and more in line with what I wanted to say. :)

nico said...

(Sorry to post 3 comments in a row)

I just read your review. That is mild and fairly constructive criticism. You truly found the best in it eventhough you don't dig on it.

I've seen bands dismissed with 2-3 word reviews before, so yours is nothing.

chad said...

Levinson has seemingly confused process with result. Some of the best songs are instantaneous, others are composed. But, as you know, I'm a slut with my music. I'll send ti to anyone and I can deal with it not being liked.

My favorite dimissive review was in the Rocket in Seattle:

"Seaweed -"Weak": Yes, it is."

Anonymous said...

Regarding the first two comments -- OutTake Records is just a few students in Boston. The email was written after Justin and his friend who runs the label were dissapointed by the review. This will put an end to you thinking that Levinson had no involvement in the email. He was the one who decided there would be an email in the first place, to the discouragement of his label. He and his bands back in VT received great reviews through Seven Days before, and he was expecting something better than he got. That's why he felt he needed to express his feelings. As for the comment about it being scary that Justin might actually have a place in the mainstream market -- If he were singing you his songs, just playing a shitty old piano in radiobean on a monday night, would you feel the same way about him? Is it the great production you don't like.... or the songs... Plenty of great artists have great demos, but then people hate them when they make this big record cuz it sounds "over produced." I just want to know exactly what you don't like about his songs or sound. Being able to say it had no emotion is one thing, but being able to describe exactly why it didn't grab you would be more helpful.

casey said...

I thought I'd stay out of this one, but...

I've heard the "Seven Days likes evertyhing" statement before, and it's absolute bullshit.

As Music Editor for the paper, as well as a producer and musician, I can tell you this: you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. I've been personally attacked by Gerald Mosloy of Matador for a national review I wrote. I simply thought the band sucked and did my best to articulate this opinion.

There isn't a week that goes by when someone's ego doesn't get brusied in this business — my own included.

And there's truly no accounting for taste; Barry Manilow's "Fifties" collection recently occupied the top of the Billboard charts. I guess it's important to remember that opinions are always subjective.

I love great production. I love shitty production. I love complex arrangements. I love the Stooges. So what?

What I think flatlander is trying to say is that it's the spirit that counts. Different individuals will have different opinions about what this constitutes.

Here's my nugget 'o wisdom: Expect the worst, and you may be pleasantly surprised from time to time.

Anonymous said...

The comment before casey's was directed towards some of the other anonymous posts by the way, not flatlander. flatlander did his job, voiced his opinion, and i'm glad he did.

yankunian said...

All I can say is, welcome to the wonderful world of music reviewing. If you don't get an email/letter like this every once in a while, you're not doing your job.

I like it best when they write letters to the editor so everyone, not just you, can see what sorry little whinge-monkeys they are.

Anonymous said...

Justin Levinson has got himself an awesome album here. All of you that are bashing it are full of shit.

Anonymous said...

yo, this is a sick album, give the kid some props. I dont think you know what your talking about.

Anonymous said...

This album is amazing. This whole blog thing is kinda pathetic :)

barrowvalent said...

After an extensive reading of the review at hand and the post-review comments, I would have to agree with those opposed to the outlandish remarks made regarding 1175 Boylston. The album put forth by Levinson and his team was a remarkable accomplishment that encompasses everything a new artist should strive to attain. Levinson’s album is a great album that I connected with on an emotional level. The very creation of this album, song by song, exudes passion through craftsmanship and lyricism producing “finely sculpted” songs. On another note, comparing Justin to Ben Zweller would be great if such an artist existed. I believe the placement of keys on the keyboard would not be indicative of such a mistake. It only promotes the lack of musical knowledge the reviewer blatantly states he lacks.

chad said...

After an extensive review of the comment that was an extensive review of the review and the previous comments, I can only say...

AWESOME!

Anonymous said...

ive listened to the songs, and being more of a fan of grungier rawer mixed sound, the production didnt seem to bother me. passion to one person isnt the same to another. one person can hear a death metal song in which nobody and even hear the lyrics and "feel" something. im not a metal fan, nore am i downing anybody who does, but all im saying is that if you cant relate yourself to a song or feel something, it doesnt mean that the song lacks "passion" or "feeling" just because you didnt feel something yourself, but somebody else might. you like a song, you dont like a song, so on it goes. i bet he's pretty good live...

Anonymous said...

hello (mostly) anonymous "street team"! -anon

Flatlander said...

Wow. There's a lot to catch up on here.

First of all, Casey, I'd love to hear the Gerald Cosley story some day. That guy's ego has always come through loud and clear in his postings to the Matador bulletin board. What band was it over?

Regarding expecting a favorable review from Seven Days, you should be glad you aren't Steve Kimmock. That review was brutal.

Justin, you asked a very honest question about what could be changed about the songs. I'd love to be able to offer some suggestions. However, unfortunately, I'm not a musician or any sort of an artist. Therefore, I have no idea at all about how to connect with people emotionally through music or art. I'm just a music fan who knows what he likes and what he doesn't but doesn't know how to fix or create anything. I know that's a cruddy answer and I wish I could offer some ideas but I don't want to present myself as something I'm not. I'm just a music fan.

However, it may be a mute point since there seems to be a bunch of people who have found this post that are fans of your music. So, my opinion may be in the minority and your stuff is just fab. I don't know. I just write the reviews based upon how I view the album. Not as I suspect others will view it.

Kaitland said...

First of all, it sounds like all of you folks have never picked up an instrument before...if you had, you would understand how articulate and masterfully sculpted each song on this album is. I am not normally a fan of this type of music, but Mr. Levinson's full length makes an artisticable statement. It's an hommage to the Beatles, one of the most innovative bands ever. I think Justin took a risk mixing so many different genres on this album. Sometimes the entire conglomeration may come off as awkward, but if he doesn't take this risk as a songwriter then who will? He's trying to find his sound,revitalize a somewhat ancient sound, and find a common medium for the listening public to enjoy. Also, do any of you people know what "soul" is? If you did, you would know that it's more than just passionate singing. Maybe, Justin's voice misses the mark sometimes, but what he's singing about is what is truly important! Topics like having someone who is close to you ship off to Iraq are pretty passionate, I'd say. I don't think Britney Spears cares much about losing her friends to this country's errors. I think whoever said that should be a little more creative with his slander, instead of being a total cliche. In conclusion, I will support Levinson the entire way until he does find what he's looking for. P.S. not to add salt to the wound, but I sugggest that if you ever plan on getting a job reviewing artists for a more established zine that you learn how to LISTEN to the intricacies that make up MUSIC.

yankunian said...

Wow - this guy has some pretty dedicated PR, that's all I can say. That's fine, but all these "anonymous" friends are going to be pretty busy when their buddy hits the big time and gets more widely reviewed.

I've gone back and read the original review again, and I have to say I'm just plain confused about what thesse folks thought was so harsh and unfair. seriously.

casey said...

The upside to all this stuff is that more people will be curious to listen to the album. I know I am. Previously, I didn't have a desire either way. Now I wanna know what all the fuss is about...

Murf, did I call him Mosloy? I always do that.

Yeah, it's a hell of a tale. You can begin part I of the adventure here:

http://www.dustedmagazine.com/reviews/1883

Interestingly, the band in question followed my advice from the first sentence of the review. After being dropped, that is. I probably shouldn't take sole credit, but I will! ;)

Anonymous said...

Doesn't anyone know about spinning a review? Lift the best, leave the rest:
"Levinson's songs are finely sculpted, with horns, vibraphone, background vocals, organs and ukuleles dancing around the songwriter's bouncy piano and pitch-perfect vocals." - Seven Days, Burlington VT

Flatlander said...

Kaitland,

You are right. As I've mentioned numerous times before, I'm not a musician. But your comments bring up another good point...musicians and non-musicians listen to music differently.

Musicians seem to listen to the more technical aspects of a song while non-musicians tend to listen to music on a simpler level. I've gone to shows with friends and family members who are musicians and found their reaction to the show baffling.

I may have liked the show because it gave me a few hours of excitement and joy while they were complaining about how the bass player was doing this or that and the guitar player was out of synch with the keyboardist, etc.

Perhaps Levinson is a musician's musician. That's fine. Brian Eno has had a successful career as a musician's musician.

Yankunian,

I agree. It's somewhat bewildering. My wife's reaction to this whole thing has been, "Why would anyone care what you think of them? Who the hell are you?" [She says it with love though.]

That sentiment, combined with a middle-of-the-road review, has made all of this very odd.

If you want to read a serious ass-riping, read Casey's review that he just linked to.

Casey,

I'm fully planning on ripping off your "over-rehearsed miserablism" line.

Flatlander said...

That's a great point about spinning a review. The guy who writes extrawack mentioned that to me also. It's a very "spinnable" review.

This isn't a "snarky" question. I'm genuinely curious if Berklee offers a course in media relations or the general business side of the business. Do they? It would seem like a worthwhile class for them to offer.

Lars said...

I'm very suprised about the whole discussion.
Music is always passion. I don't know any composer, who composed, because he was a machine, which created perfectly made music.
Justin is definitely not a machine, but he is hard-working on the quality of his music. As outlined in the review, he puts his pieces together just greatly. Therefore his music is more than just passionate: It delineates ardently Justin's feelings and views in a speckless way.

chad said...

This is fun.

An issue in the reivew isn't that the musician had no passion, but rather that the reviewer didn't think that the musician had conveyed passion. If intention is all that matters, then every free kick in the world is a goal.

I play a bunch of instruments, and, sure, it is nice to hear someone who has been trained. But knowing your scales, modes, and tricks are again no guarantee that anything you compose will be any good. In a similar way, knowing these things are neither necessary for being a good listener nor are they sufficient for being a good listener.

dankers said...

chad, you're right...it's not about just knowing your modes and chord inversions- it's about HOW YOU USE THEM...and, i think everyone has just not given enough credit to some of the musical things levinson is incorporating in this cd...and tastefully too i might add! Listen to "Sophie" on the album, the music behind his voice is so dark and whimsical...and it's a waltz with such a beautiful melody, no less! Listen to "sleepwalking," it's another dark song with a bittersweet melody that mixes unsettling chords with a state of malaise...and the guitar solo at the end is just so tasteful and a nice reflection of how open his style is! Listen to the music in "All I ever wanted" and "Sky is falling"...he has juxtapositions of confused emotions that translate not only through his lyrics but through the power each chord elicits....listen to everything, twice! his music may come off as simple upon first reading, but that is how all great art comes off..you have to dig beneath the surface...beneath the subtle nuances to find the true beauty of what he is trying to say....he's no prophet, he's just singing about what he knows: childhood, innocence, love, friendship, growing up, and a deep concern for humanity... I really don't want to keep feeding this blog war...If anything, I just want everyone to just listen to this cd a couple of times, and let it all sink in...then, we'll talk.

Anonymous said...

attention justin levinson street team! your constant volley of how talented he is in this forum is, as they say in boston, "wicked annoying". i think flatlander has handled your (perhaps due/undue) criticism with great fairness. suck it up, get over it, move on. justin is lucky to get any kind of press these days - good or bad.

chad said...

dankers:

You missed, and thus inadvertently supported, my point.

pops said...

Guess what? Justin doesn't have a street team, so stop blaming all of these supporting comments on such a thing. And yes, it's all been blown way out of proportion. Flatlander did his job by reviewing the cd... and so he found some faults with it. Who the fuck cares? Some will like it, some won't. (By the way, check out notlame.com. His cd was featured on that site today.) Anyway, I'm not sure what flatlander had in mind with this blog in the first place. Obviously friends of Justin will find out about it and flood it with supporting comments. That was bound to happen. What can we all learn from this? Don't send a retarded email to someone who gives your cd a middle-of-the-road review, cuz he may post it online and make all of his friends in Vermont hate you. The end...

Flatlander said...

Well said, pops. The end indeed.

jds said...

I just wanted to push this thing to 40 Comments. The rollercoaster has been a fun ride. I'll be looking back on all this with fondness.

Stewart said...

Great album guys but I still want a Subside reunion show!!!

Peter Triston said...

Levinson your album is fuckin rad. this guy flatlander is a real needledick

Anonymous said...

I'll 2nd that one!