Jarred from a deep sleep by your cell phone ringing in the middle of the night, it's not uncommon to hear this greeting: "Oh no, did I wake you? I couldn't sleep." It's a go-to validation for anyone who's ever called a loved one at an absurd hour. And whereas most folks these days instinctively reach for the phone to quickly silence it, we all have our short-list of exceptions – the people we'll always answer.
Borrowing from the unexpected liveliness that often propels insomniacs through late-night conversations, the energetic latest album from Orlando music scene veterans The New Lows is offered almost as the sort of epiphany that occasionally comes from those kinds of calls.
The album, titled I Couldn't Sleep, comes out Nov. 13, and it expresses a point of view derived from letting go and allowing yourself to be surrounded by a fortress of friends – the kind you can call up in the middle of the night should you ever feel the need. For Mike Levin, who wrote the songs and assembled the band's current lineup of Bobby Pino, Greg Lightfoot and Wes Snowden, one of the inspirations for the sound was friend and former band member Ralph Ameduri.
Ameduri had been helping keep The New Lows going while they sought a new drummer. In 2011, Ameduri was shot and killed in an attempted robbery – it was a gut punch not just to Levin, but to the entire Orlando music community. His memory continues to be celebrated by members of the local music scene whose efforts are still touched by his influence. Take I Couldn't Sleep, for instance: Levin says Ameduri's death was an eye-opener that prodded him to be more musically productive, and the record reflects that.
"I'm relieved, I'm excited; you go through so many phases of loving it and hating it, so it's hard to know in a week how it's going to feel, but I'm proud of it," Levin says of the album. "My whole goal with this was to really have a lot of fun and kind of go for it. Like I said, I was really inspired by the passing of Ralph to do stuff and not just sit back. So I think that's kind of how I was like, 'Let's make a record.'"
Nothing about the album feels forced, perhaps because Levin says he's compelled to write more fluidly after departing from the slowed-down craft reflected on the band's last album, 2008's Atlantic Pacific. That album contained glimpses of what listeners will hear on the new album – listen to "Dan," from the 2008 album, and it's easy to draw a line to tracks on I Couldn't Sleep like "Abeyance" or "Bite Me" – but with I Couldn't Sleep, Levin returns to his pop-punk roots.
"I was doing kind of country, almost classic rock-y there for a little bit, and it just got boring to me, writing that way," he says. "So, I'm trying to find new ways to keep things exciting for myself, and in this case, it turned out kind of being a turn back to old days for me, just straight up punk and poppy."
Instead of recording locally, Levin was motivated to get out of town for a few days, and in April, he and The New Lows traveled to Algiers, La., to record I Couldn't Sleep at a studio called The Living Room. Ever since then, Levin has been churning out music. As a result, the free CD-release show at Will's Pub this weekend will feature not only the latest songs from the album, but also even newer songs that Levin says skew even further toward punk.
As for the collage-like cover art, Levin took creative charge of that, too, playing off the Francisco Goya etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. That piece, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, suggests both the suppression and protection of the imagination, a personal struggle that unexpectedly led Levin and The New Lows toward what Levin calls their most unique record to date.
"I'm really happy with the way it came out, with all the factors that played in, just trying to be the least stressful as possible," Levin says. "Hopefully, that will come through, the joy of production and recording; I think it did. I was playing with guys who are really good friends, so it's been awesome hanging out with these people, and a lot of what is coming out of The New Lows is just about friendship."
Following the album's release, The New Lows will primarily stay local, playing a few December dates around Florida. There are loose plans for a tour in the summer, which makes sense given Levin's day job as a middle school teacher. And while I Couldn't Sleep has yet to be unboxed, for this band, which has cycled through some incredible talents and experienced lapses between releases, it seems they've fallen into a groove where the next thing is just around the corner, thanks to a somber wake-up call from a good friend.
"I think I've also been inspired, somehow, by Ralph's death," Levin says, "to become a little more motivated and proactive."
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