FOR MANY indie rock fanatics, the first 11 seconds of LVL UP’s new album, Return to Love, will sound startlingly familiar.
Opener “Hidden Driver” begins with a feverishly strummed acoustic guitar that’s ultra percussive and so distorted it sounds like it’s sizzling. It’s a sound that plenty of artists have used over the years, but LVL UP’s treatment immediately brings to mind ’90s folk rock heroes-turned-hermits Neutral Milk Hotel.
The second song on Return to Love, “Blur,” kicks off with a guitar lick that sounds inspired by Built to Spill. The third track, “She Sustains Us,” has the muffled, buzzy feel of the Microphones. “Spirit Was” warbles and chimes like Pavement. “Pain” sounds like... well, sort of like all of the above smashed into one song.
Now we’re halfway through LVL UP’s remarkable new album, released last month by a label that knows a little something about ’90s indie rock, Sub Pop Records. Most bands hate it when writers play spot-the-influences—understandably (and rightfully) so. But LVL UP is not most bands. Formed by college buddies in 2011 who nestled into a tight-knit community of DIY artists in Brooklyn, the quartet has been pumping out unstoppably catchy, lo-fi pop-rock for the past few years, sometimes on its own Double Double Whammy record label, and sometimes for others.
Return to Love, however, is LVL UP’s first release for the mighty Sub Pop, which means more people will hear it and think to themselves, “Whoa, this sounds like [fill in the blank].” And that doesn’t bother the band one bit.
“We’ve always kind of worn our influences on our sleeves and even gone as far as to actually talk about them blatantly in song,” says guitarist Mike Caridi. “I mean, it’s not like it’s a big surprise.”
Caridi cites a vague memory of seeing a written chart of song origins and borrowed ideas crafted by Phil Elverum, the fertile mind behind the Microphones and Mount Eerie.
“I like talking about it because it feels good,” he continues. “It kind of creates a web of influences and references. One time we even talked very briefly about making some sort of index regarding references and ideas and where they came from. I always thought that was kind of cool, ’cause then you see a little bit of what goes into [the music]. Some things are more obvious than others, but you’ll see a little more of a background, I guess.”
To be clear, LVL UP’s music is not the result of one person’s brain. Greg Rutkin plays the drums, while Caridi shares writing and singing duties with guitarist Dave Benton and bassist Nick Corbo, which is why Return to Love feels like much more than a one-note exploration of fuzzy rock ’n’ roll. “Five Men on the Ridge” riffs hard enough for heavy metal. “Cut from the Vine” is a slow, somber lullaby about love and impermanence. “Naked in the River with the Creator” closes the album with a stomping, seven-minute-long organ-drone chant.
Trying to accommodate three different songwriters with their own sets of influences and ideas has taken down more than a few bands, but Caridi doesn’t consider that an issue for LVL UP.
“It makes things easier, because it’s less pressure on any one person. Nobody has an ego or anything like that,” he says.
Just then, a voice from elsewhere in the tour van jumps in: “Morph us all into one being if you want,” it says. “We’ve abandoned our personal identities at this point.”