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Pop-punk trio The Max Levine Ensemble hasn’t had a full-length record in nearly a decade, and to gear up for the release of Backlash, Baby the group has rolled out a three-part music video series that’s an exercise in fantasy. In the clip for the triumphant “Sun’s Early Rays” the band is tied up and threatened to burn in a ring of fire as a Bond-like hero played by Katie Alice Greer makes off with a doomsday orb while a maniacal super-villain played by Ilsa bassist Sharad Satsang and his cronies try to track her down. The glowing orb is placed in the cranium of Max Levine frontman David Combs in the video for the sweet “My Valerian” before his lurching venture through the city bleeds into a psychedelic daydream.
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The Max Levine Ensemble doesn’t have a Hollywood budget or even an indie film’s microbudget—it’s a DIY band after all. The videos’ shoestring visual effects are a little crude, but they’re watchable because of the same affection and sense of fun the group applied to the new Backlash, Baby. The album’s pop-punk glee is as much a necessity as its frazzled energy and engine-revving guitars.
Combs certainly needed a shot of merriment since he recently retired his long-running solo project, Spoonboy. A handful of days after Combs played one final Spoonboy show at the Black Cat in June, Impose published an interview with him that dove into the effects of not only playing intimate, vulnerable material but sharing experiences of trauma with fans around the country. As he told the magazine’s Liz Pelly, these conversations were powerful and important, but it takes a toll “when you find yourself being a receptacle for other people’s trauma… you do get filled up, and you get burnt out.”
Combs sounds freed from the weight of those experiences, but not entirely unburdened from the world. While amusement is key to Backlash, Baby, so is perspective, and Combs finds a way to fit anxious lamentations into melodies that bathe in sunlight and vocal harmonies that beg to be shouted to the sky. On “Born at the Wrong Time,” he rattles off the hard-to-pin-down feelings of unease and modern dislocation, and throughout the track he repeats the line “something’s tugging at the bottom of my soul.” What feels ominous at first begins to feel almost celebratory each time Combs circles back to the line—it creates a sense of collectivity, and he knows how powerful a shared experience can be.
The Max Levine Ensemble is something Combs has shared with his friends since high school, regardless of whether or not they were ever actually involved in the band. Combs formed the group specifically to cover punk songs his buddy Max Levine requested. That was 15 years ago, when Combs was still in high school at suburban Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. The band has managed to stick together through the years and lineup changes, and the spritely, sometimes nervy tracks on Backlash, Baby suggest the members are still as young and hungry as they were before any of them hit the road for a weekend tour. While the trio introduced its newest release with a series of videos exploring the cinematic imaginations of its members, The Max Levine Ensemble continues to live out one real-world dream that remains inescapable for so many others: creating art in a punk band.