The Max Levine Ensemble
Release date: November 20, 2015
Pop punk is a fickle beast. The genre runs a broad spectrum from boring and derivative sound-a-likes through three-chord genius. The best bands give us a bit of both approaches, and Washington, DC’s The Max Levine Ensemble do just that on their first album in eight years, Backlash, Baby. Vocalist/guitarist David Combs formed the trio back in their high school days at the turn of the century, and they have developed a style that makes a nod toward familiar sounds, but remains unique. You may have heard plenty of pop punk, and while this fits snugly into that mold unless you’ve heard The Max Levine Ensemble you’ve never heard it like this.
Backlash, Baby opens with the title track, a strong number that falls somewhere between the brilliant power pop of The Pink Spiders and the punk rock attack of The Vandals. The band establishes a formula of rocked up pop songs right from the start. “My Valerian” takes us into Pixies territory with a bit of The Hold Steady style sing/speak lyrics. The rhythm section of Ben Epstein (bass/vocals) and Nick Popovich (drums) seem to be channeling David Lovering and Kim Deal. “Born At The Wrong Time” is melodic punk a la Blink 182, coupled with smart lyrics. “You Were A Fighter” takes a darker turn, sounding like the tense moments of The Bouncing Souls. While all of these songs can clearly use other well-established bands as reference points, they have a certain flair that ensures they remain a new creation.
The real surprise on this release comes on the final two tracks, “Going Home Part I” and “Going Home Part II.” The first track is a somber, clean electric guitar proto-folk track that reminds me of Kepi Ghoulie, while the final track brings back the joyous tone of the opening act, returning to the punk rock take on The Pink Spiders. The main riff is in the same vein as Weezer’s “If You’re Wondering,” and the transition from pensive introspection to feel good punk rock is seamless. In these two tracks, the band shows their depth as songwriters and performers.
The Max Levine Ensemble is an example of what a band can accomplish without bending to anyone else’s rules. The trio puts out albums at their own pace, and functions nearly entirely on a do it yourself ethic, just like many of the classic punk bands did in the early days of the genre. The difference is that Backlash, Baby shows just how far a band can go on their own in today’s musical and technological environment. Gone are the days when DIY albums sound inferior. Backlash, Baby is a smart, fun album full of great songs built on the foundation of classic, tried and true pop punk songs. I hope I don’t have to wait another eight years to hear what comes next.
Reviewed by Jim 1340