Levy & the Oaks’ six-song follow-up to their self-titled 2016 full-length debut is a change in direction for the Asbury Park three-piece.
While I prefer the vocally harmonic roots rock of Levy & the Oaks’ 2016 self-titled debut LP, damn if they haven’t written some infectious new tunes that infect the cranium like a gummy worm come to life inside an ear drum. While occasionally still relying on the brilliant lap steel playing of Chris Colon and, to a lesser extent, richly layered vocals, the popular three-piece now have more in common with power pop than Americana. As a result, their audience likely will grow larger as it responds to material designed to engage listeners live even more so than on their forthcoming six-song EP, “Sound of the City.”
Strong songwriting throughout nearly compensates for what the faithful will feel is overlooked or under-utilized. The songwriting, as well as slick production, are at their best with the jarringly dichotomous and unsettlingly apocalyptic “Happiness Is Easy.” A robotic, automated drum track by Berklee-trained Andrea Morgan symbolizes the soullessness and lack of humanity described in lyrics so fantastic and fascinating, I am sharing them all. The chorus — “I was dragged through life’s changes. I was told to get over it, get used to the hands around my neck. Happiness is easy if you can forget” — is interspersed with the following exceptional verses:
“Oh what a scary feeling. I feel the seasons change for good, and with that comes a healing that’s more like being slaughtered in the woods.
“In the street, the march is tappin’, moving forward like a crippled Fred Astaire, but me, I stand for nothing. I am protesting protest so you’ll never see me there.
“My blood runs hot. It’s thicker than the wine. My flag flies black and blue. We were made to break, and I’m out of glue. A martyr for the gospel of you.”
The arrangement around the opening is particularly powerful with a pause before the last line that heightens the misery that belies the title. Yet, the story is told alongside what basically is a dance track, ironically dialed in by the talented, well-schooled Morgan. The effective combination creates something altogether different that is a statement against apathy in the face of tyranny and a testament to the songwriting of vocalist-guitarist-lyricist Duane “Levy” Okun, bassist-percussionist-pianist Lou Panico, and Colon, who also plays electric guitar, as well as the production of Morgan, who also has worked with Jersey Shore-based Pure Noise recording act Can’t Swim. Panico’s hauntingly beautiful piano track adds to the dichotomy, offering a glimmer of hope as the world falls apart all around it.
“Happiness” is the only track produced by Morgan. The EP’s other two producers are Christian Medice, who also trained at Berklee, and Joe Pomarico, co-owner of Levy & the Oaks’ new label, Holmdel-based Telegraph Hill Records, also the home of Avery Mandeville & the Man Devils, The Burns, and Foes of Fern, all three of which feature other label head Matt “Fern” Fernicola, also a Berklee grad.
The power-pop of "Rings" and the cute fun of "Another Night in Asbury" were produced by Pomarico. Both are infectiously funky tracks. I love the line in “Rings”: “If there is beauty in suffering, honey, I know I am Ryan Gosling.” And in “Asbury,” there’s: “Sitting outside Bond Street, you told me you were happy to be alive and life seemed pointless before you met me. Were you being serious? Or whiskey serious? Handed me a glass, told me to relax, so I took a couple of sips.” I imagine the chorus to “Asbury,” particularly toward the end when it breaks down, is quiet a rave live.
Despite its poppy overtones, “Asbury” is surprisingly overlong on the record. After that breakdown, it should come to a cold end to avoid a radio edit and easily could be expanded live for a fired-up crowd. I mean, if you’re going to sacrifice two of the best elements of your band — the lap steel and vocal harmony — to a more accessible sound, then you might as well keep the tracks a radio-friendly length, no?
“Asbury” is one of two tracks that comment on the lack of importance of appearance. The other is the Medice-produced/mixed “Mirror Mirror,” an opening lament of popularity and beauty in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. That tune is the EP’s second single. Medice also produced the first single, “Obsessive Love,” which relates a romance to an unscripted movie by a delinquent director, as well as something classic that never gets old.
All three producers, along with mastering-mixing engineer Chris Badami, should get credit for helping Levy & the Oaks pursue a poppier sound while maintaining their credibility. But with the self-produced closer and title track, an extremely well-written and performed song that is akin to musical theater, the band again struggle with length.
One of the prettiest Jersey songs released so far this year, “Sound of the City” features a hauntingly beautiful piano and string arrangement that could have concluded the track with a stunning cold ending that would have increased its emotional impact rather than ramble to a cliched conclusion that doesn’t do justice to such great lines as the closing verse: “In the waves, you seem distant from the shoreline. You’re missing. My lighthouse shines, but not for you.”
Whether a roots-rock band, a power-pop band or a combination of both, Levy & the Oaks certainly are artistic. And the arrangements of these new songs should make for a great live show on Aug. 3 when they celebrate at a dual record release party also for The Burns’ The “You” EP, which will be reviewed here next week. Sharing that bill at Asbury Lanes will be Avery Mandeville & the Man Devils, Rachel Ana Dobken, and Black Suburbia.
Levy & the Oaks also will play with The Burns, as well as Tara Dente, The Paper Jets, and Cranston Dean Band, on Aug. 11 in the final installment of the Makin Waves Summer Concert Series at Asbury Park Brewery. Other upcoming dates include Aug. 5, The Seafarer Bar, Highlands; Aug. 24, The Saint; Aug. 25, Langosta Lounge, and Aug. 29, Asbury Park LIVE (with Bobby Mahoney and the Seventh Son), all Asbury Park; Sept. 8, Butch Kowals Tavern, Rahway; Sept. 14, Stosh's Craft Beer Bar, Fairlawn, with Delicate Flowers, The Nectars, Crowded Shoulders, and Kate Dressed Up, and mid-September at Resurgence Festival in Atlantic City. Levy & the Oaks also will be featured live at 7 p.m. July 29 for an interview and live performance on “Danny Coleman’s Rock on Radio” at www.coaradio.com/listen-now/.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.