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CD REVIEW: ...1175 Boylston... Impressive Debut for Berklee Student

Levinson...s Lyrics Capture Complexities of Life

By: Jillian Berry

“1175 Boylston” by Justin Levinson

Show at Thirsty Ear Pub, Aug. 29 @ 9pm

Justin Levinson’s debut album, “1175 Boylston,” can best be described as “powerpop” with its perfectly blended poppy tunes and lyrical depth. A songwriting student at the Berklee College of Music, Levinson is often compared to Ben Folds in sound and style – and with good reason.

Levinson’s piano skills, pure vocals, and songwriting abilities are impressive, and they shine throughout the CD. In particular, his lyrics are insightful and diverse – ranging from the war in Iraq to growing up in a small town to meeting a girl on a bus – yet simple and centered on common experiences. In fact, the songs are so easy to relate to that I began to wonder if he somehow took my thoughts and wrote them down in verse.

All the songs on the album are similar in quality, but a few outshine the rest. The opening song, “Sunny Day,” (which was voted best song at Berklee last year) starts the album off with a bang. While the music is catchy and upbeat, with an equally cheery title (we could all use a sunny day living in Boston), the lyrics show Levinson’s range, as he sings “And it’s true that I think you could use a sunny day/But I think it’s a thing that’s only up to you to make.” He is able to create a mood of somberness without diminishing one’s sense of hope. Furthermore, in “Andria” and “If You Get Lost,” Levinson successfully describes his loneliness and confusion without sounding like a whiny teenager. Furthermore, he demonstrates with “Sophie” how his voice and a piano can be so simple, yet still create a powerful response. Although this album is very good, there are a few minor flaws. Most notably, the songs often end abruptly. There were multiple times when I wish the last note was carried out a little longer or he had sung an extra line. In particular, in “All I Ever Wanted,” Levinson ends with a beautiful piano solo which would have been that much more impressive if he had repeated the chorus one more time instead of leaving me wanting more.

However, the strengths of the album easily compensate for any weaknesses. Overall, “1175 Boylston” is a promising and impressive first record that gets better each time I listen to it.

Justin Levinson will be playing at the Thirsty Ear Pub at MIT on Tuesday, August 29 @ 9pm.

Recently, I was able to talk to Justin one-on-one. Here is the interview.

JB: What are the instruments you play on the album?

JL: On the album I play piano and I sing and I do background harmonies, and I play the trumpet and trombone on it. My dad played a bunch of instruments on it, he played guitar and bass and drums on some tracks. And Adam Popick [Berklee student] played a lot of instruments on it.

JB: Did your parents push you into music?

JL: My dad when I was real young … I would kind of misbehave when I was real young, and I was in this program in first grade and the teacher divided the day into three parts, and at the end of the day I would get a piece of paper with stamps on it for each part of the day, and if I got three stamps it meant I was good for every part of the day. So if I got this for a whole week, I would get a reward [from my dad], and my reward was to get a CD, and I got like Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Everly Brothers CDs. I just ended up with this huge collection.

JB: What musicians have inspired you?

JL: The Beatles are my favorite band. I love Paul McCartney and John Lennon. I’m a big fan of Ellie Smith, and Ben Folds I like a lot. A lot of people have compared me to him, but I try not to sound exactly like him. The Beach Boys, and it’s such a big list.

JB: What are your musical aspirations?

JL: I’d like to just make a living playing music. Hopefully, people will appreciate it. Maybe they’ll relate to it. I’m not looking to be like huge, but if that happened, it’d be great.

JB: How do you like performing live?

JL: I love performing live. I just love even before a show starts. I love just putting my equipment inside the van, even if it turns out to be a dive, just loading up the equipment, I’m pumped.

JB: When you write the song, do you have a method? Do you write the actual music first or do you write the lyrics first?

JL: All writers tend to do it differently. Typically, I’ll start out with a chord progression, and depending on what the vibe is – if it’s kind of sad or happy, or if it’s slow or fast – I really like chord changes, so when I get something I like, I get really excited.

JB: Do your parents support you with the music?

JL: Totally, 100%. My dad was a musician back in the day in NYC. Since early on, he was totally backing me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Berklee because I was intimidated by it, I thought everyone will be so good, I’ll be the worst player here. I wanted to go to some small school in the middle of nowhere, but [my dad] said no, I have the opportunity, so I should just do it. And he helped me financially. To make an album is huge money. He paid for the majority of it. Both my mom and my dad are really supportive people.

JB: How do you like being in Boston and being at Berklee?

JL: I love Boston. It’s so nice. It reminds me of Vermont where I’m from; the same type of vibe, it’s really New England-y, and I think the people here are really open-minded and nice. With Boston, I can handle it, being from a small town in Vermont - when I go to NY I’m like “Oh my God, this is too big, I’ll never survive it” – it’s livable. And I do like Berklee a lot.

JB: Based on your songs, it sounds like you’re from a small town in Vermont. What was your town like, and how has it affected your music?

JL: My town is a good place to grow up in. It’s really small, and really pretty – a good place for nature – but it was really secluded. It definitely gave me the feeling that I wanted to get out and spread my wings a bit. But it was also another really supportive community. In Vermont, people are mad friendly, and help you out a lot. When I play shows up there, all my friends come out and back me.

JB: You’re in your own fan club on Facebook. What’s up with that?

JL: That’s so funny. Actually my buddy from Germany, he’s been a big supporter, his name is Lars, he loves my music. He sends me postcards all the time. I met him in high school on an exchange. He’s been helping me out, doing anything he can, and he surprised me with a Justin Levinson fan club. He sent me the invitation for it, and I thought it was kinda lame joining my own group, but I’ll take it anyway.

JB: You have an interesting approach to singing about the war in Iraq, often referring to it indirectly and focusing more on its effects on individual lives, particularly in “Fireflies” and “The Sky is Falling”. What inspired you to address the situation in this way?

JL: When you bring politics into music, you can already split your fan base. I guess what inspired me the most was seeing my friends going overseas, and seeing them come back.

JB: The CD is named after the address of your first apartment?

JL: I think I was really not creative. I feel there was something cheesy about it at Berklee since everyone lives on Boylston Street. But I just decided to name it that since I wrote all the songs in there. I took an entire year and just stayed in my room, just wrote tons of songs. I was so not social, and out of the loop for a while, but I just wanted to make a record.

JB: But you don’t live there anymore?

JL: I actually live at 1109 Boylston, which is just a little down the street. Everyone keeps joking, are you going to name your next album 1109 Boylston?