Updating T. Rex and Bowie in most famous, flambuoyant Ziggy Stardust mode served Pop Levi well on his debut, Black Majick Party. The Liverpool musician who previously toured with Ladytron proved a confident and refreshing devotee last year, rocking with candour and verve through songs of sex, infatuation and shenanigans. But since then Flight of the Conchords’ “Bowie” is out there, shooting off witticisms like a dare. That the New Zealand group’s song turns out so affectionate makes it even harder for a guy like Levi to return with straight-up homage. No matter how technically accomplished, you’re gonna seem one step behind. And that’s more or less what lessens the impact of Pop Levi’s otherwise enjoyable sophomore album Never Never Love, not Flight of the Conchords per se, but our collective weariness with tight-pant-for-tight-pants’-sake.
It’s like something in the balance is slightly off on Never Never Love. The rock and knob-twiddly synths and sweeter electro elements aren’t so much integrated as smashed together, and they occasionally sit somewhat uncomfortably next to each other. Levi’s songwriting relies on catchphrases, lingering on the tone above the tonic and dropping back—simple harmonic progressions only made interesting by the syncopation of the words’ natural rhythm. So he declares “I wanna mama” (and later, “I gotta get her”) on “Wannamama”, or “Dita Dimoné” on the song of the same name. With punchy vocal harmonies behind, these phrases don’t sound too bad, but the trope makes it difficult for Levi to craft songs that quickly stand out.
Still, some of these phrases have an easy charm. “Semi-Babe” milks the phrase “my semi-babe” for all it’s worth, telling the story of an elusive lover in a classic pop melody, over a relaxed major arpeggio in the synths: “Whether right or wrong, she got 37 numbers in her phone.” More astute is “Mai’s Space”, which twists the words of the title into what sounds like the popular social networking site. “I’ve been staying at Mai’s Space”, Levi sings—a swooning, androgynous vocal, paired to Carribean rhythms and pattering percussion. The straighter electropop “Call the Operator” shows Levi’s playful side. There’s a reference to Jamaica (just in case you missed the lighter tone of Never Never Love) and, in the interlude, the tones of a telephone echo the song’s melody. Nicely done.
Which is partly to explain the satisfaction you can get from hearing music that’s completely shameless. “Mai’s Space” is complete puff, kitschy and disposable, but that doesn’t matter at all as it’s still super fun. Levi’s songwriting innovation rarely extends past the sly insertion of an unexpected chord into a recognisably glam-rock or electropop texture. And these insertions are never the focus of a song, just playful diversions. At its best, Levi’s music comes across as skeletal in a good way in that it takes the cosmic androgyny of those ‘80s glam artists and makes it Levi’s own. When he rides over surging, fuzzy guitars Levi is less convincing. Like Jim Noir, Levi’s talent’s for attitude swooping down over familiar, major melodies. His determination to simultaneously rock it out is only occasionally successful, but it doesn’t detract too much from our enjoyment of the album.
Even though this music’s been parodied, Levi is committed and that commitment is obvious throughout Never Never Love. His music probably won’t be counted as must-hear, won’t cause those seeking the latest ‘it’ sound to fall into rhapsodies of praise. But in his own way Pop Levi provides a refreshingly different voice in the multitude of new music, circa 2008.