Review Summary: Seriously good 2008 pop-punk from Washington, D.C. trio.
The Max Levine Ensemble’s OK Smartypants
album is everything a good pop-punk record should be; it’s poignant, political, and literate, but still fun, poppy, and just a little goofy. Released in early 2008 on one of the most formidable DIY indie labels in the country, Plan-it-X records, OK Smartypants probably won’t be making too many prestigious year-end lists, but it should. It’s enjoyable as hell and is short and catchy enough to warrant many listens.
The Max Levine Ensemble’s genre tag suggests simplicity. Pop-punk brings to mind a genre long forgotten after 8th grade, where songs are comprised of a few power chords and the lyrics are ridden with lewd jokes or whiny lamenting. The Max Levine Ensemble isn’t this kind of band. Their music is relatively simple sure, but the trio definitely knows what they’re doing; the instrumentation is tight, quick and interesting. Opener One Click
is break neck and urgent, but the instrumentation is varied in a way that is all too uncommon in pop-punk. Still, what separates Max Levine from the pack is singer/guitarist Spoonboy’s distinct voice and smart, narrative lyrics.
Aren’t All Songs Political? Aren’t All Songs Vaguely Self-Referential?
is an early album highlight that tells the story of a socially-isolated girl who runs away to California. The words are simple enough, yet somewhere in the plainly-worded lyrics is something truly special. Spoonboy paints a vivid and entirely relatable picture overtop bouncy guitars and fun-sounding drums. Max Levine’s lyrics aren’t overly dark, or overly optimistic, instead they are realistic, relevant, and affecting. As the aforementioned song title hints at, many of them have political undertones as well. Spoonboy’s voice is high-pitched, expressive, and cute-sy. Still, the man knows how to get his point across, and his childlike voice doesn’t get in the way of the band’s poignant or political messages. You’re Bitter
is upbeat, but there is no mistaking the anger that comes with lines like “But they’ll tell you that you’re crazy, and they’ve got PHD’s. Now, come on sucker, who’re you gonna believe? If you’re not dulled yet by addiction, well yours will be prescribed.
Summer, like the Season
helps to end the album in a great way. It’s a catchy, emotionally-charged lament about a lost love featuring seasonal metaphors and rad dueling vocals (bassist Bepstein adds backing vocals in addition to inventive bass lines throughout the album). In the end, Max Levine Ensemble are sonically similar to many 90’s pop-punk bands, and can definitely stand up to many of the highest regarded classics from that time period. Comparisons can easily be made to bands like Jawbreaker and Fugazi, as well as less-serious acts like Green Day. In fact, two of the three bands in that last sentence are listed in the “much plagiaristic respect and flattery to:” section at the end of the liner notes (along with less similar influences like Billy Bragg, George Orwell, and J.D. Salinger). Still, OK Smartypants is a unique and great album. It’s one of the new century’s best pop-punk records, and is well worthy of making my completely un-prestigious Top 25 of 2008 list.