Graded on a Curve:
Paul Levinson,
Welcome Up (Songs of Space and Time)

In musical circles, Paul Levinson is best known for recording an album of early ’70s sunshine pop-tinged folk-rock psychedelia, with Twice Upon a Rhyme having acquired a deserved cult fanbase after a handful of reissues. But beyond musical realms, Levinson is an author of science-fiction and non-fiction, a frequent commentator on news programs and public radio, and a professor of communications and media studies. These activities help elucidate the lack of desperation in recapturing past glories on his new record Welcome Up (Songs of Space and Time), as it instead offers a succinct expression of who Levinson is now. It’s released on Old Bear Records with distribution through Light In the Attic.

Twice Upon a Rhyme was issued in 1972 on Paul Levinson’s label Happysad Records (I’m just going to assume the name’s inspired by the Tim Buckley album), which makes it a private press, though it’s really one of the better examples of the “genre” I’ve heard. But don’t just take my word for it, as it’s been praised to the skies by private press authority Paul Major.

It was put out on CD in South Korea and Japan in 2008-’09 by Big Pink/ Beatball and Vivid Sound respectively, and had LP reissues in 2010 and ’12, both times by Whiplash/ Sound of Salvation (sealed originals are available on the album’s Bandcamp page, not cheap but fair in this context). As his collaborators Ed Fox and Peter Rosenthal are credited on the cover, Twice Upon a Rhyme is far from a “loner” situation, with Levinson, as a member of The Other Voices, having released a pair of Ellie Greenwich-produced singles for Atlantic in 1968.

If you own a copy of the Rhino Handmade compilation Come to the Sunshine: Soft Pop Nuggets From the WEA Vaults, then you know The Other Voices’ B-side “Hung up on Love,” and you’re familiar with a significant ingredient in Twice Upon a Rhyme’s recipe. What distinguishes the LP is its strains of folk-rock maturity and also its strangeness, which is at times nearer to something Straight/ Bizarre might’ve eked out around the same period, than it is to a typical private press.

A track from Twice Upon a Rhyme would’ve fit right in on that Zapped comp. Yes, that Reprise Loss Leaders entry came out in 1970 with Bizarre defunct by the time Levinson’s record was completed, but you get the idea. Hopefully. But hey, his first record isn’t the point of this review, it’s his latest we’re focusing on here, with Welcome Up (Songs of Space and Time) a long-belated affair not because his earlier work was only recently discovered and he’s suddenly seeking to extend and prolong the exposure, but because Levinson’s been busy writing books and teaching.

In fact, the idea for the new record came not from Levinson but Chris Hoisington, who runs Old Bear Records. He thought the science fiction themes in Levinson’s writing were a potentially solid fit for the sunshiny-folk-rocky disposition of his prior musical output, and after time spent with its eight selections, by George, he was correct.

Welcome Up certainly shares stylistic qualities with its predecessor, but perhaps the most prevalent commonality is how Levinson works so well with others. Twice Upon a Rhyme benefited from over a dozen contributors, and while his new one reduces the number of instrumentalists, it still features a handful of co-writers (John Anealio, the return of Peter Rosenthal) with nearly all the songs composed in our current century.

“Picture Postcard World,” is an exception. It dates from 1968, as does the first verse of opener “Welcome Up,” though the track was finished in 2018 in prep for Welcome Up (this tidbit and other info is sourced from an interview with Levinson conducted by the online magazine It’s Psychedelic Baby).

“Welcome Up”’s partial derivation from the ’60 is palpable, as the tune doesn’t register as an approximation of the era or even as an attempt to recapture the essence; it simply just is, and its gentle and lightly psych folk-pop aura (the song began as a gift for his girlfriend Tina and was finished after they were married) has an appealing youthful authenticity; originating from the same year as those Other Voices singles, I could’ve been convinced the entire song was cut in ’68.

The up-tempo sunshine strummer “If I Traveled to the Past,” complete with some harmony vocals from Hoisington, gets into the neighborhood of what shaped Twice Upon a Rhyme, but the next track, “Samantha,” takes a surprising turn toward fuzzy psych-rock territory, though the sturdy singer-songwriter core remains (a little folk, but more so poppy) that has helped Levinson’s work hold up over time and encourage return listens.

The heavier redirection of “Samantha” is momentary, as “Tau Ceti” leaves the shade for the sunshine, with just a hint of ’60s neo-vaudeville-baroque pop in the arrangement and instrumentation (the success accrues through restraint). But the lyrical imagery includes spaceships (per Wikipedia, Tau Ceti is a “single star in the constellation Cetus”), so that the goal of wedding Levinson’s musical youth to his sci-fi career didn’t get misplaced.

Welcome Up’s production and playing are a sustained positive. I especially like how Donny Frankel’s accordion (he played keyboard on Twice Upon a Rhyme) subtly increases the baroque atmosphere, but the album’s standout is really “Picture Postcard World,” which infuses the soft-pop cheer with persistent psych swirl (getting downright underwater toward the end) as Levinson hits just the right level of crooner.

This vocal sensibility rises in “I Knew You by Heart,” with its unabashed pop thrust likely to be the least favorite moment on the LP for some listeners. But the opening piano reminded me of a few spots on The Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up, and Levinson’s total commitment to the song is likely to be appreciated by fans of early Scott Walker. I kinda like it. Scratch kinda, as the track’s synth-keyboard injections are reminiscent of some mellow pop obscurity from around the time of Twice Upon a Rhyme’s release.

“Alpha Centauri” reinforces the sci-fi angle, though instrumentally it recalls Lothar & the Hand People more than a little bit, which is to say there is Theremin on Welcome Up. I dig that. I also dig those unflagging pop motions on what’s essentially a love song to a star. Finale “Cloudy Sunday” (with music by Linda Kaplan, who also contributed to Twice Upon a Rhyme,) injects the mildly Association-like harmony pop introspection of the original 1968 demo with faux surface noise including a prominent clicking that suggests the album was rescued from a box of neglected vinyl.

But no, as even with solid ties to Paul Levinson’s younger musical pursuits, Welcome Up (Songs of Space and Time) is a contemporary dispatch, firmly sent. It hits the ear as the best kind of long-delayed follow-up to a phenomenon of cultish proportions; unstrained, totally comfortable in the present time, but sounding like nothing else on the current scene.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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