Tom Levin – Tooth and Claw (2011)

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We find no uncluttered answers on Tom Levin’s sumptuous, vaguely fatalistic Tooth and Claw. In fact, oftentimes the questions themselves for this former New Music Weekly Awards AC male artist of the year are almost unbearable. Levin faces them all with a hard-bitten, desolate fortitude, occasionally descending into this abandoned whiskey-barrel voice that recalls a youthful Tom Waits, and he boasts just enough mainstream musical sensibility to reach a broader audience. This isn’t an easy record to think about, but certainly it’s an easy one to hear.

“For Life Tonight” jangles out with an electrifying riff and a melancholy menace. As Levin contemplates the possible paths a new relationship may take (could she be the one for me? … my hopes, they run ahead …), the track begins to rattle along with this burgeoning pop potency. Levin starts by piling up a lifetime’s worth of snapshots, imagining surprise getaways to exotic locales. All the while, the tune billows up behind him, eventually transforming into a soaring plea for love with a whooping confluence of polished background vocals and thundering toms.

“A Toast To My Drummer’s Wife” begins with a childlike innocence, as a plinking, almost rain-like piano introduces a writerly tale of budding romance. Levin perfectly mimics the flood of emotions associated with a new relationship, running the words together in an alliterative jumble. A smart ennui then slows “Sink Your Teeth In The Day” to a crawl, while Levin retraces well-trod trails through a familiar town. A weekend hike out into the bursting joys of nature, however, opens his heart again to the wonders of life, and Levin’s song catches a sing-along second gear. His carpe-diem message doesn’t break any new ground, of course, but “Teeth” is so catchy that it just doesn’t matter.

For all of that, though, Levin can’t get away from the costs inherent in our journey. The more contemplative “Evermore,” with its spacious, echoing piano refrain, underscores the uncertainties that can follow such impulsive decisions. His title track here, again pushed forward by a forlorn keyboard, tries to come to grips with the temporal worries that every life holds. The lilting ballad “We Know We Can Dance,” then, is something of a respite, recalling the unironic acoustic joys of 1970s singer-songwriters like Bread or Loggins and Messina.

“Longing Is the Life That You Found,” despite its shattering images of loss, also chugs along with a lightly locomotive rhythm. Levin is similarly frank, almost brutally so, on the introspective “Burst Out in Flame,” examining how heartbreak and hurt have fed into the need to perform, but also into a draping fear of rejection. His lyric’s lonesome emptiness is again echoed by that spacious, faraway piano; its sense of underlying dread by a blurred guitar.

The brittle, haunted “Edelweiss” puts his voice front and center, like someone administering a stern talk. Even as Levin starts listing all of the small, good things that he could give a woman, there’s already a sense of preordained doom. “Gabriel’s Gone Missing,” a meditation on a soul’s final moments, opens with a churchy organ, adding a deeper blue to an already very dark night.

Levin then hits a friendly little acoustic groove on “Hibernation” and at first this, too, begins as another gray day of waiting for someone to return. Levin eventually adds a sun-drenched backing vocal, but those glimmers of hope are quickly enveloped back into the clouds by “Nothing Will Go Wrong.” Levin, singing over a steely wail reminiscent of Robert Earl Keen, offers a brusque rebuke of easy platitudes in the face of our everyday struggles.

Levin ends with the quietly personal, piano-driven “I’m Your Son,” a talk with an aging parent about expectations and differences and how all of those things make us who we are as adults. When he sings the title refrain, over and over, to conclude Tooth and Claw, there is at last a sense of contentment, no matter how fleeting. Like much of the album, it’s as beautiful as it is heartrending.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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