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:
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.
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.