This post is written by Michael "Farley" McFarland - founder of Second Street LLC. Farley has worked at several recording studios in Chicago, has produced & engineered several works of both his own and others' music.
I've been thinking a lot about the difference (and often, interplay) between being a musician and an artist. I can recall a few times that I've come across people who are musically talented (e.g., playing an instrument or singing well, or they have an immense amount of musical theory knowledge), but when they make original music or come up with compositional ideas, it's missing.... something. Not that that's a bad thing: there's a huge need in this world for more "textbook" sounding songs and riffs. And it pays well!
But being a talented artist, I believe, is something completely different than that. Being able to convey one's expression and connect it with others has very little to do with playing intricate chord progressions. One of my favorite examples of an artistic talent is the fabled Daniel Johnston, who made an entire creative world come to life in the form of DIY music and hand-drawn visuals. Johnston made his audience feel many deep, painful emotions alongside him, all from the bounds of his cluttered garage... but it wouldn't be very contentious to say he perhaps lacked a little bit in the "technical" musicianship department. This is why it's so important, I feel, to have both of these skillsets in mind when creating and playing music, which is at the end of the day, both an art form and a discipline.
So, why do I mention all of this? Well, it's because when I saw this hidden gem tucked far away into Lev UFO's release post for his first single "Hate Today" on May 31, I felt I had a good insight as to what kind of person he is.
Sure, it's missing punctuation. The capitalization choices are odd. The font is Comic Sans, in an unsightly tomato-red color. It's true: the design of this little message (and pretty much every piece of content Lev has put out) is wildly unconventional. But that's who Lev UFO is. Adapting an early-2000's weird-core MS Paint aesthetic, Lev subverts the popular notion of caring too much. He refuses to compromise his identity to become somebody he's not.
And in turn, Lev's entire brand oozes authenticity. He might crank a photo's saturation way beyond the advisable point and use Picnik to edit in a few shooting star clip-arts. He pulled up to a studio session wearing a Tweety Bird starter jacket and bell-bottom pants with flowers on the rear. He's like an alien, yes, but one that we are somehow familiar and friendly with. In his music, he croons about human feelings like heartbreak, anxiety, and self-doubt, all the while hosting a cute green frog Beanie Baby on his guitar head.
His debut EP, Lev UFOrever, is our introduction to this new artistic act, in the form of an avante-garde hyperpop daydream. Let's get galactic!
What Does It Sound Like?
The dominant sonic theme in this project is eclecticism. Distorted, screaming electric guitars and screechy FM synths give way to charismatic and honest singing about Lev's intimate life experiences. These elements sum to create a smiling, fuzzy, buzzy landscape. While it's undeniably digital-forward, there are plenty of recognizable analog tones that lean into a cleaner, reggae-dub sound ("Hate Today!", "Gasoline") and even some classic Rhodes keys stylings ("AGAIN!").
This wide assortment in sound selection gives Lev's music a wonky and cosmic feel, disregarding all ordinary conventions. It's almost as if NASA dumped a variety box of instruments (ranging from the 1980's all the way to today's newest shiny synths) on some far-away planet and didn't include any context about Earth's typical music tropes and status-quo decisions. Lev is that extraterrestrial who just found his unique way to make his art happen. It's bizarre, fresh, fun, and delightful.
At his core, Lev has an emotive singing voice that wouldn't sound out of place leading a Sublime song or a Dominic Fike track off Don't Forget About Me, Demos. However, he takes a page from the Laura Les book of recording and alters his vocal audio heavily ("Chicken Soup"). Whether it's pitch modulation, auto-tune, or even a vocoder (a special moment in "AGAIN!"), Lev's vocal stacks reach a pinnacle of digital texture that few can achieve. It takes both creativity and direction to make this style work and not feel randomly-implemented, but Lev definitely pulls it off, aided by arrangement and production choices.
"The BenZ" is a fun one; in this anthemic, guitar-driven record, Lev's drums have a head-nodding boom-bappiness to them. The songwriting calls to mind Tyler Joseph from Twenty One Pilots. This track also features what I believe to be the most memorable lyric from the whole project: "maybe tomorrow is the day that my life begins; maybe it's just another Wednesday with my friends."
Throughout the project, there are foley sounds, SFX swells, and high-frequency percussion elements that add plenty of ear candy -- audiophiles, check out the two-and-a-half minute mark of "The BenZ" for one of the coolest transitions I've heard all year, as the lead guitar track transforms into a synth riser as it exits. I applaud Ryan Rajagopal for his work on mixing/mastering, as he pulled together high amounts of distortion and clipping tastefully without letting it devolve into a mess.
What Does It Feel Like?
The LevUFOrever experience is a bright and optimistic fever dream about having fun with friends and poking fun at the shittiness that life has to offer us. Hyperactive music videos and an ultra-creative rollout strategy amounts to what I would almost call multimedia performance art.
Lev's YouTube channel is full of gems. For the"Hate Today!" visual, producer and close friend Heartgaze plays a ladybug-shaped guitar as Lev UFO crawls into the frame wearing a flashy red suit that Elton John might wear. He immediately strips down to his signature South Park boxers and raps some paradoxical bars about self-loathing. After he screams an ear-worm of a chorus, Lev crawls back into the trapdoor from which he came. See ya next time!
"Gasoline" is another clever piece, with scenes shot at an indoor storage unit facility and a gas station. As he delivers point-blank lines about his various medical diagnoses, the self-aware video editor responds to them in a hilarious fashion. You may ask, "who directed and edited these videos?" Oh, he did. Of course he did. Lev's transparency really shines on this track, in a way that he can laugh at his struggles and enjoy his life regardless.
Look no further than the "Gasoline (acoustic)" video, in which he plays an unplugged version of the tune on a rooftop on July 4th. As he blissfully strums away, loud fireworks behind him become increasingly distracting. When he reaches the climax of the song, car sirens begin going off and dogs bark in terror. Ultimately, he explodes. It's this type of humor that our generation loves so dearly, for reasons that either escape us, or we don't care enough to dissect.
"AGAIN!" is a tender change of pace, a song about loving somebody for a long period of time, and the resulting pain of moving through life without having that love anymore. It's paired with a sentimental, nostalgic video: Lev lays in fresh snow without a shirt on, enduring the cold as he sings his heart out. He gets up and runs around manically as heavy drums pound, and hundreds of real-life pictures from his childhood flash by on the screen. It makes me feel all sorts of emotions; some good, some bad, and all very vulnerable.
While he's no doubt a talented musician, Lev is doing everything right as an artist. He's in good company as he is co-signed by several other young talents who are crushing the Chicago scene. He played a private release party for this EP last week alongside Ramya Pothuri and Ebony Loren.
Whatever comes next, I'm sure we can expect it to be equally zany, colorful, and animated. Have you given these tracks a listen? Let us know what you think about them! We here at Second Street would love to chop it up.
On The Block...
"T. A. C. (Take a Chance)" - Brooklynn Skye
With silky vocals, a winding bassline, and a nasty rhythmic pulse with a Soulquarians feel, I invite all to try to listen without a stank face. Brooklynn, who plays with Dreamer Isioma's "The Celestials!", has now released three solo singles in 2022... they all crush.
"Dead Ends" - Piwa
Piwa has a fiery & powerful voice that is as awe-inspiring as her cover artwork. Last year she featured on the remix of classic Grouplove hit "Tongue Tied," and now she's brought us her debut EP. The cinematic, worldly production is reminscent of Little Simz.
"im gonna kill myself this halloween.." - JATAN SATAN
In a change-up from his fastball, JATAN SATAN brings a toned-down, depressing track about spooky season suicide, marking a brief step away from his devilish, trap-metal stylings. If this weather doesn't give you chills, these haunting background vocals will.