An Australian colleague and author of a recent book on Cesar Franck recently pointed out a brilliant quote from Camille Saint-Saens that serves as a good entré to the album under discussion: “Why cannot we understand that in art, there are some things to which we must not accustom ourselves?”
I’ve gotta admit, the first few listens of Look A Little Closer didn’t leave much in the way of a lasting impression. I didn’t devote much attention to it initially, listening in chunks on headphones walking to and from various things, and didn’t sit down in front of a real sound system for a proper airing for about a week. That’s not to say I wasn’t surprised by things, notably the combination of vocal harmonies resembling early-70s baroque folk (or more recently a band like Midlake), funk grooves, and a Dave Sitek-like firmament.
Anglophilic harmony and hints of Curtis Mayfield aren’t exactly new, even in combination, but it occurred to me that I’ve never heard anything like this come out of Florida. That’s why David Levesque is selling himself a bit short when he, and the press release, use the description “Mickey Mouse tribal.” The Sunshine State, and many other places besides, have their vaguely tropical, “hipster primitive” bases well covered. In fact, if there’s anything like a universal aesthetic of indie rock today, that might be it.
Gary Oldman doesn’t have time for that, and neither do I.
But Levesque’s debut, for which he enlisted approximately 15 Florida musicians, is something quite different. It’s supposedly a concept album about mental illness, though I couldn’t hear much evidence of that; the album seems more about the songs than the lyrics or structure. In several of the songs the lyrics serve as little more than a mantra or placeholder, as in “Solemn Feeling Forever Healing,” or obscured by vocoder, as in “Can’t Buy This Love,” or absent entirely, as in the Middle East-inflected “Muscat Mingle.”
That’s all good though, because the musicianship is incredible. The longest track works through about four minutes of a proggy rendition of the gorgeous retro suspended harmonies that are all over the album, before finally committing to a tonality and acoustic drums in the beautifully cathartic bridge. In its more spacious moments, Look A Little Closer recalls the best Talk Talk in the way that their tight grooves serve to (almost) order and contain the ambient chaos and arrhythmic percussion in the gaps.
Levesque has a versatile voice, but it’s soft; he never really lets go here. Enmeshed in harmonies that sound like Sean O’Hagan by way of Crosby, Stills & Nash, it still finds the necessary power, but it really stands out on quiet tracks like “Canterbury Bell.” That one’s straight Simon & Garfunkel, but it works well with Levesque’s impressionistic songwriting.
Closer inspection reveals a keen harmonic and textural talent, though the music has many of the signifiers of what might ineptly be called universalist global pop, from the currents of which Gainesville is no less immune than Peoria or Oxford, Mississippi (but he’s glad Florida left fingerprints). Despite the conceptual pretenses, it doesn’t do much to challenge that dominion, but there aren’t too many musicians who can turn such interesting chord changes as Levesque does on this debut. He’s said that above all he wanted to “make an album I’ve always wanted someone else to make.” That’s a higher bar than it sounds, and he’s done more than that. One only hopes he turns outward for his next work. Sixteen gendarmes is a hefty contingent for any man’s demons, but there are plenty out here that could use his attention.