By Daniel Garrett
Jodie Levinson, In the City
Songs by Jodie Levinson and Lisa Ratner
Produced by Lisa Ratner
East West Music/Fastrax Studios, 2010
(JodieLevinson.com / Released 2011)
Csmopolitan cities are great subjects, filled as they are with the ambition and desire, competition and struggle, and license and power of people from all over the world; and New York is one of the greatest. New York’s towers and its nooks and crannies offer enticement, inspiration, opportunity, challenge, frustration, and fulfillment. The books of Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, and James Baldwin provide different perspectives on the city and its deceptions and truths, its seductions and punishments. The lyrics and rhythms of songwriters have attempted their portraits of the city; and some that come to mind are “Take the A Train,” “New York State of Mind,” “New York, New York,” “The Apple Stretching,” and “Native New Yorker.” The young singer-songwriter Jodie Levinson is making a claim on the territory. With a title such as In the City, Jodie Levinson raises hopes for her album that are not completely satisfied, but that disappointment is balanced by the fact that she has a wonderful voice and makes whatever she sings a gift. Her true theme is not the quest for position or success, but friendship and love in a city of strangers.
The sound of Jodie Levinson is that of a sweetly sensual, warm woman, influenced by blues, jazz, and rock, and her voice is distinctive, though there are times when one hears echoes of Laura Nyro, Rickie Lee Jones, Vanessa Williams, and Mariah Carey. The song “Quand Va T’il Arriver (When Will He Come),” which presents a picture of a woman waiting for a man, actually has a relaxed groove, and “You Make Me Smile” is both girlish and sultry. It is a cliché that men and women want different things—men want easy and quick sexual contact and women want a relationship, and the charm and conversation between them are enjoyed with different purposes in mind. In “Quant Va T’il Arriver” the narrator has an instinct that something is wrong in her encounter with the man she is attracted to, but pursues her attraction anyway. She was expecting a companion, a colleague, a champion, but does not get that; and she continues to wait. The pace of the city is suggested in “You Make Me Smile,” a city in which the streets are filled with so many diverse and intriguing faces, raising desire and frustration (“Wanna talk to you, make this real, but no one stops for nothing here”), and one sometimes must be satisfied with the brief contact of eyes and the resulting smiles. I was surprised by the male voice and rap in “Lazy Sunday,” a reflex inclusion for many singers; in a song of romantic intimacy, it makes vivid the lover but it is a gesture that nods to the contemporary, the hip, in a composition that has its own separate appeal—the sensuality and warmth of a woman’s voice and of instrumental music. (I can hope only that the inclusion makes radio play more likely.) The composition “Books, Tea” is more meandering and meditative than the preceding songs, and it evokes memory and achieves a welcomed meaning. I am not likely to dislike a song featuring the simple but haunting phrase “the way we were,” and “Books, Tea,” written by Levinson with Zack Schwartz, with its reference to complicated intentions, personal transitions, travel, family introductions, books, tea and food, and the acknowledgement of the fact that “friends like you come once a decade,” has a density that is marvelous. That is the richness of genuine experience.
Jodie Levinson is a singer, a pianist, a writer, and a teacher, and her current work has a history: she began playing and studying music as a girl, before attending Skidmore College in New York, and organizing the vocal group The Skidmore Accents, and a more diverse musical group, Grace Over Glass, that produced a small recording of its work and played clubs such as the Cutting Room and the Bitter End. Jodie Levinson collaborated with Zack Schwartz, her co-writer on “Books, Tea” and “Matter of Taste.” Levinson recorded “Matter of Taste” with producer Matt Pendergrast, who had done work for Mary J. Blige and Ciara, before Levinson began working with the multi-instrumentalist and producer Lisa Ratner, a writer whose songs have been performed by Streisand, Dolly Parton, and Vanessa Williams. Levinson’s collaboration with strong personalities seems to have done little to dilute the individuality and intimacy of her work, but I am curious about how much more intuitive and intricate that work—especially the lyrics—might be without any interference.
“Grass Ain’t Green” is a light but intelligent look at the limits of luxury, a song that must go against the grain of much of the striving that takes place in a cosmopolitan city, in which everyone is looking for the main chance, the path to the golden grail. In the song, a woman who has appearance, wealth, and family is still not happy. The lyrics are a little too casual for me, though I get the point (“It’s not all the things that it’s cracked up to be” is a line that could have been further refined). Of course, happiness is a lifelong project for princess and pauper alike. “What’s the point of having all of this stuff, if you’re not happy and it’s never enough?” the narrator asks. I imagine that the point of it is just to have it. Human beings are full of reasons and justifications for many things, the frivolous and the serious—but in the final analysis, human desire tends to supplant them all. Of course, it is nice (and even important) to be reminded of spiritual values. “To me she’s a bore with a sensible face” is a perceptive and rather funny line in “Matter of Taste,” a Levinson-Schwartz song that foregrounds what so much of the city is about—taste and judgment, even in matters of the heart. The three songs “Books, Tea” and “Grass Ain’t Green,” and “Matter of Taste” come closest to fulfilling the promise of a portrait of a cosmopolitan place.
Slow, with an undertow, in a blues style, the song “Rough Boys” contains a certain ambiguity in its treatment of subject, time’s effect on a charismatic person, the bruising of experience. (It is attributed to Levinson, Zack Schwartz, and Lisa Ratner.) When I first heard “Strangers,” I thought it was one of the more provocative songs, and then I realized I might have been misinterpreting it: in a city in which associations and gestures form a texture of meaning for observers (allegiances are perceived), sometimes people think one is still friends with someone with whom one no longer associates, and I thought that was what the song was about. However “Strangers” is more likely about people who were close but now do not talk—and people do not know that they were ever intimate, a much more common scenario. Manhattan’s Central Park, a book of jokes, and relationship blues are presented in the album’s title song “In the City,” featuring a spoken word interlude, and creating a textured soundscape. The collection closes with “Like the Rain,” the most erotic song of all.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth. Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com