There’s a lyric in LVL UP’s song “Soft Power” that stands out as a mission statement for the New York band: “There’s nothing wrong with being nice,” Dave Benton sings, “unless it’s just a front to get yourself liked.” It’s a declaration: Let the sincerity and niceness shine and people will see that for what it is. That said, LVL UP aren’t gimmicky; they’re not just putting up a front to be liked.
Although their name sounds like it should be used for a chiptune band or a new iOS app, LVL UP are more similar to early-’90s guitar-driven acts like Built to Spill or Pavement. They seem descended from the relatable, mumbly bands that young listeners across the country have been discovering via college radio and latching onto for years.
The band was formed by David Benton and Mike Caridi with the intention of writing short, simple songs. On their sophomore release, Hoodwink’d, the longest track clocks in at just over three minutes. But in that short amount of time, even in the 40 seconds of the title track, they tackle emotionally weighty subjects of anxiety and mistrust. They ask questions like, “Am I being hoodwinked to even think that I could love you?” They lean toward the inward-facing and self-reflective.
The tracks alternate between vocal stylings: Caridi’s low croons on the opener “Angel from Space” trade off with Nick Corbo’s higher wails in “I Feel OK” and Benton’s drawl on “Ski Vacation.” Along with the vocal changes, the songs are broken up by the chorus-laden guitar melodies. On “I Feel OK” and “If I Leave,” fuzzy guitar chugging is traded for clean, twinkling tones. These tonal shifts make the songs seem lofty and multilayered without dragging on.
LVL UP deliver the types of indie-pop songs that so many bands and listeners chase after: They seem plucked from a time when you may have had to stay tuned in to the local college radio station to hear a specific song just once and continue to chase the feeling it gave. Hoodwink’d maintains the spark of that feeling. It is cohesive but not monotone, and exciting while staying honest. That feeling of payoff comes through again and again.