By Mark Guarino
A fantastical back-story brings allure to music if not creating the precedent for its very creation. You can forgive musical eccentrics like the jazz experimentalist Sun Ra (who claimed he was born on Saturn) because the elaborate costuming, transcendental live shows, cunning humor and hunger for innovation was directly rooted in the fairy tales and sci-fi scenarios he created.
That fog of ambiguity is being seen again thanks to the current “freak folk” movement, particularly from its shining lights: Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie, Joanna Newsom and Animal Collective. Because their music summons an old world aesthetic, of an imagined life before the Edison Cylinder, while at the same time connecting it to the druggy, back-to-woods mysticism of 1960’s psychedelic music, freak folk’s new crop rejects the cult of personality commonly used to sell musical product at a time the majority of it is sold at Wal-Mart.
Sometimes this results in music that is strange, compelling and aggravating all at once. Or sometimes, freaks just want to dance.
In that category, Pop Levi accommodates. “The Return to Form Black Magick Party” (Counter Records) — clunky and obtuse album titles are also a favorite of freak folksters — is a debut album rooted to the primitive, beat-rattling sound of the Sun Records era that is renewed through nonsensical, fuzzy dance pop, psychedelic boogie blues and glam pretension. Levi, 29, elevates the references to a level that is unmistakably his own. His thin, nasally whoops, sneers and dense harmonies inject the songs with bubblegum rock flair. “Dollar Bill Rock” features a hard stomping beat straight from John Lee Hooker, crazy organ riffs and a sock hop vibe that grows more insistent every second.
This is fun. While “Black Magick” has its softer folk leanings, usually accommodated by dissonant noise and wobbly acoustic guitar picking, it does not fuss with the spectral artiness of his psychedelic peers. Levi is more in-your-face about what he’s after and, responsible for most of the instruments himself, he knows how to create moments that pump with high energy.
Inspiration, he says, comes from Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) the British occult writer and poet whose controversial life included becoming the primary advocate of Thelema, a philosophy with the principal belief that instructed, “Do What Thou Wilt.”
“I suppose I’m into the ideas that magic flows up,” said Levi. “He called magic, ‘living scientifically’ with the idea that you can work out a system and a way to live. Like a drawing, but in real life. There’s nothing simple about it but you can achieve what you want to achieve rather than sitting off watching television and dying with everyone else.”
“Magick Party” is the direct result, Levi reported, of scrying, an occult practice where believers receive visions after spending a considerable amount of time staring into an inanimate object like a rock or a crystal ball.
The teaching, Levis said, can be practiced to create “messy pop music for the future.”
“In a nutshell, it’s a creative technique where you listen … and the interpretive side of your brain kicks up and creates words or letters to make art out of,” he said.
Levi’s biography is purposely tenuous: He acknowledges he was raised in boarding schools throughout Europe, ending up in Liverpool where often lived as a squatter, illegally occupying abandoned houses with likeminded wanderers. In the meantime he eyed a goal that had occupied him since age 7: “I wanted to be a pop singer.” He joined dance pop band Ladytron as a bassist. That experience made him learn the business end of things and gave him the courage to strike out on his own. “If you’re watching someone having a baby, it’s not the same as having a baby,” he explained.
Levi recently relocated to Los Angeles where he wants to be “a movie star.” He also reports he rejects all current pop music, instead preferring the merits of contemporary R&B, music “that makes you want to move your body.”
True or false? The strange sensations of “Black Magick” do not matter either way. No matter where he came from, Levi definitely knows where he’s going. The options for someone with an album to sell are clear but few: “kill somebody or tour endlessly for five years.”