Ed. note: Starting this week, Culture Shock’s weekly Maine music columns will change a little bit; I’ll be running a record review weekly, instead of a longer feature. Every two months I’ll run a touring show roundup and I’ll also intermittently run a review of singles (not full albums) released by Maine bands. Basically, I want to devote more time to writing about the music specifically — to focus on new albums and new work from Maine artists both up and coming and established. Cool, right? Thanks for reading!
It might be a bit premature to call Jesse Gertz, who with Cormac Brown and Penn Chan leads the Portland synth-rock trio Leveret, a prodigy. Even though the literal definition of prodigy is a “young person having extraordinary talent or ability,” and Gertz, at 23, already has a back catalog of songs and recordings that musicians ten or more years his senior would envy. No, it’s premature because with “Action at a Distance,” the second proper Leveret album, Gertz has come into his own as a songwriter and a producer — nothing else he’s released into the world has the mixture of technical skill, sensitivity paired with aggression, and dynamic flair.
“Action at a Distance” begins with the bracing sound of a dial-up modem on, “Let’s Communicate,” a sly pun that sets the tone for much of the album — the black humor in some of the lyrics through the album’s ten tracks brings to mind an artist Gertz likely appreciates — Al Jourgensen, of Ministry and other assorted projects — though that alternates with a heavy dose of existential angst a certain Mr. Reznor circa 1997 might recognize. Anyway, “Let’s Communicate” aggressively sets the stage for “Action” as an album that melds indie rock with a wide swath of electronic influences, from industrial music to ambient soundscapes, from experimental strangeness to Moog-loving prog rock. The fabulously retro synths on “Let’s Communicate” crash hard into a hip-hop breakbeat, until eventually vocals find their way into the track and an array of intriguing samples are introduced — Gertz clearly loves sound, and finds music in both instruments and in musique concrete-type elements. It’s an invigorating statement that informs every other track on the album.
Despite all the polarizing musical dynamics throughout “Action,” there’s an accessibility present on nearly every track — right off the bat, the one-two punch of “Oscillator” and “Unclothing” weave pop melodies into the buzzing, simmering musical landscape, not unlike fellow electronic composer and pop songwriter Caribou. Gertz has no interest in maintaining a certain sound throughout the album, however — he’s not afraid to get slow and get weird, as on “Nefariously,” and he’s not afraid to write a sweet, acoustic-based love song, like “Little Dream Song.” The glammy posturing of “Grandfather’s Axe” steers the ship right back into rock waters, with Gertz unleashing a rock n’ roll howl more akin to Ian Hunter or Marc Bolan.
Nowhere else is the stylistic diversity of “Action” better on display than “Swallow,” which starts out as a swaggering, funky rock song, with synth sirens firing in the background, before seamlessly transitioning into a psychedelic rave up — yes, a rave up, in the grand tradition of the Dead, or like more contemporary psych bands like Akron/Family. It’s as bold a statement as any Maine band has made in years. It’s thrilling.
Leveret will play with Mr. Neet at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10 at One Longfellow Square in Portland.