I’m going to tell a story I’ve told before: the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I saw Real Estate play a free benefit show in their hometown of Ridgewood, NJ. I grew up twenty minutes away in a small town in the same county, so I felt a strong connection with the band and this show in particular. Opening for Real Estate were two lesser known Ridgewood-based bands: Toasted Plastic and Spook Houses.
LVL UP, the Internet’s new power pop buzzboys, are also from Ridgewood; specifically, two members of the now theoretically defunct Spook Houses play in LVL UP. However, in all of LVL UP’s press materials, interviews, and so forth, they claim they’re from Brooklyn. Nonsense! The website for their newly launched record label and Exploding in Sound imprint Double Double Whammy even lists their address in being in Ridgewood. The point is that LVL UP may be broadening their horizons, but they’re still firmly rooted at home; their newest, Hoodwink’d, could’ve only come from musty suburban New Jersey basements. The album reaches home in other ways, too; it feels like a logical continuation of Spook Houses’ sorely overlooked 2012 album Trying, and an appropriate follow-up to LVL UP’s 2013 effort Extra Worlds.
Past LVL UP fans will be more than satisfied by Hoodwink’d, but first-time listeners will be entrapped as well. Fifth track “Soft Power” contains the dejected, dry musings of Spook Houses and LVL UP’s best work, confirming that the two acts are undeniably interconnected; where it’s bound to grab new listeners is in its desolate opening chug of power chords and honest lyricism. Pinkerton’s influence bleeds all over this intro, as do so much of the alt rock released in the 90s (think Built to Spill, early Modest Mouse). “I Feel Extra-Natural” boasts stark guitars and placid, weighty vocals that would fit nicely on a slew of classic grunge albums; “Medication” takes cues from the power pop jams that dominated two decades ago.
It’s incredible, then, that these songs sound so modern and natural. “Ski Vacation” is limber and enthralling in its retro-gazing guitar sheen; “DBTS” rehashes old power chords and thrillingly husky overdrive to create a unique, compelling stomper; “Total Loss” adds a new layer of depth to the term “stoner rock.” It’s tempting to toss off LVL UP’s liberal borrowing of past trends as, er, Hoodwink-ing, but their ability to write in the same modes as their idols without merely copying their greatest tricks results in some of New Jersey’s most memorable power pop gems in recent memory.
Although LVL UP broadcast the dejected gaze of “What is left in New Jersey but my family and my job?/Just me and my dog” in “I Feel Extra-Natural”, it’s clear that LVL UP offer a bright future for New Jersey’s always-thriving DIY scene. No, they’re far from the first musicians to want to leave the state (hell, they already have; Brooklyn, anyone?), but their escapist attitude towards it is actually cementing their status there. Hoodwink’d is fundamentally New Jersey in sound and subject, and the fact that the state can lay claim to such an enjoyable band is of great benefit to its music fans.