City Paper is not for tourists
For my cover story on D.C. DIY pop-punk mainstays The Max Levine Ensemble, I traced the history of the band from their goofy teenage years to where they are now, 15 years later. While the band—David Combs, Ben Epstein, and Nick Popovici—has evolved musically over the years, it’s in many ways still the same snotty pop-punk group it was in high school. They’re just all grown up now. To a lot of the group’s longtime fans, the music it was making 15 years ago is just as important as the music it’s making today (the new album, Backlash, Baby, officially drops tomorrow, by the way), so I asked Shira Pilarski from the band Maneuvers—who’s been a good friend and fan of the band since nearly the beginning—to create an ultimate Max Levine Ensemble mixtape, to help those unfamiliar with its music get a good sense of where to start.
Below is Shira’s mixtape, as well as a brief explanation of every song chosen:
1. “Pizza Guy” (From Songs That Make You Wanna Jump Up, Run Outside, Grab a Donut from a Cop, and Yell, “Chach Rules!”)
This song, aside from being an early sing-along hit for the band, captures its early silly, messy, poppy punk sound perfectly. The weird breakdown is the best part, particularly Alex’s, “What the hell?”
2. “Spoonboy’s Revenge” (From Songs That Make You Wanna Jump Up, Run Outside, Grab a Donut from a Cop, and Yell, “Chach Rules!”)
This was also an early hit. Everyone would bang their heads and shout along to the ending: “I don’t want to be like you/ Although I know you want me to/ There’s nothing left for me to do/ There’s nothing left at all.”
3. “Fuck You I’m Not PC?” (From Songs That Make You Wanna Jump Up, Run Outside, Grab a Donut from a Cop, and Yell, “Chach Rules!”)
Gotta love David’s ability to sing syllables faster than listeners can process what the words mean. Mouthful of political lyrics—hear the Propagandhi influence?
4. “Dittography” (From Goes to Jail for Stealing a Donut from a Cop)
This will forever be my favorite TMLE song and one of my favorite songs by any band ever. The switch from spazzy for most of the song to chilled-out reggae then to poppy ska in the bridge is perfect.
5. “Throwing Watermelons” (From Goes to Jail for Stealing a Donut from a Cop)
A quintessential Bepstein song. This song is about not listening to grown ups, having a good time, and being a kid forever. It is not, but may as well be, about eating pizza, playing kickball, and maximum summer.
6. “Hell of a Week” ( From Goes to Jail for Stealing a Donut from a Cop)
“Hell of a Week” is a pretty nice song, but it doesn’t have a lot to say. “Hell of a Week” is a pretty nice song, but it changes from day to day.
7. “Poop Farm” (From How to Build an Intergalactic Time Travel Machine)
I went to college and am going to speak for everyone else who did, too: This song depicts college accurately.
8. “Nihilism” (From How to Build an Intergalactic Time Travel Machine)
With its stick click rhythm and disco beat chorus, this song is fucking awkward and I love it. Also, the lyrics are spot on. Maybe the best Max Levine Ensemble lyrics ever.
9. “Raindance” (From How to Build an Intergalactic Time Travel Machine)
WHOA-OH-OH-OH. Won’t you come dance with me?
10. “Jazzonia/Back to Point Zero” (From How to Build an Intergalactic Time Travel Machine)
“Jazzonia” is a Langston Hughes poem set to music. “Back to Point Zero” is the most crucial sing-along in The Max Levine Ensemble’s history. Put them together and get utter perfection. It is impossible to stop yourself from throwing your hand in the air or around the shoulder of a nearby friend and singing at the top of your lungs: “It’s not what you remember/ It’s not what you can count on just one hand,” and, “It’s every inclination/ It’s every time you wanna stop and turn around.”
11. “Look Away” (From How to Build an Intergalactic Time Travel Machine)
Maybe the folk-punkiest Max Levine song? I love when the music cuts out and crowd vocals come in. When they played this live, everyone in the audience would become friends during that part.
12. “Pink” (From split 7-inch with Operation: Cliff Clavin)
Perfect dissonant spazzy pop-punk. This song rules.
13. “Ghost Song” (From split 7-inch with Spirit Animals)
The ghost wailing sounds are a perfect example of how this band manages to be silly and obnoxious but still totally lovable.
14. “Firetoowwweerrr” (From OK, Smartypants)
This is the undeniable biggest hit of OK, Smartypants, a record full of big hits. It continues to be one of the songs that gets the best response at shows, eight years later.
15. “Aren’t All Songs Political? Aren’t All Songs Vaguely Self-Referential?” (From OK, Smartypants)
This song is about making friends or losing friends and being depressed and maybe falling in love or trying to fall in love, I think? Why is it so effective when I’m not sure what it’s about? Some of the lines really resonate with people. I know someone with a tattoo that says, “You knew that you were loved but couldn’t find someone to love you.” Also perfect pop music decision: “That’s the one thing I can’t do doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.”
16. “Love, Capital L” (From OK, Smartypants)
This song goes back-and-forth from ultimate sing-along to so something so spazzy you can’t sing along fast enough. I don’t like clapping along with music but when they play it live it’s hard not to clap along during the “I found out now/ I found out a-oh-a-oh-a-oh” part in the middle.
17. “Summer, Like the Season” (From OK, Smartypants)
In the last eight years, I think I have seen The Max Levine Ensemble not finish their set with this song, like, twice. Maybe. And for good reason: This song is so good that you don’t want to hear any more music after it. Historically, songs with Bepstein lead vocals tend to be silly, but this song is angsty as fuck. In the best way possible.
18. “Ben Weasel Thinks We Suck”(From the Ben Weasel 7-inch)
When I told David the songs I wanted to include, he noted that I didn’t pick any songs from the Ben Weasel 7-inch or Them Steadily Depressing Low Down Mind Messing Post Modern Recession Blues. I don’t think any of the songs have as much lasting power (none of them are songs that they ever played a ton, or that they continue to play a ton), but David said if you were gonna include one song from the Ben Weasel 7-inch, it should be this one.
19. “Lucky Ones” (From the Them Steadily Depressing Low Down Mind Messing Post Modern Recession Blues 7-inch)
20. “Adventures in Petsitting” (From the Elephant in the Room 7-inch)
This is my favorite song on this 7-inch, partly because I think it’s musically the best, partly because it’s about the trials and tribulations of being a dogwalker (a subject to which I can relate), [but] mostly because both of my cats are in the music video.
21. “Last of the Assholes” (From the Elephant in the Room 7-inch)
I honestly don’t like this song, but I don’t think it’s for me. I think it’s for young men who haven’t thought about the effects of their complacency in the patriarchy, in harmful manifestations of masculinity. The Max Levine Ensemble continue to play this song pretty regularly, so I think it’s a song that’s important to them.
22. “Divorce Court” (From Songs That Make You Wanna Jump Up, Run Outside, Grab a Donut from a Cop, and Yell, “Chach Rules!”)
This is a cover of an AKs song. It’s a terrible live cover, so I am including the AKs version, too. It’s really important to include this. I don’t think I can explain the necessity of the inclusion of it, so you’re gonna have to ask David to articulate the importance/significance of the AKs, specifically this song.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery