Every once in a while, I hear a brand new album and it feels as though I've been listening to it for years. I know I've never heard the music before, but it is so good -- so perfect -- it's as if the songs have always been part of my consciousness. This is the case with Levi Kreis' joyous new collection, Imagine Paradise.
Imagine Paradise is the remarkable result of Kreis' wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, where he reached out to his fans for assistance in order to get the album made.
As one incentive for being a project "backer," Kreis offered a level of value where he would directly communicate with fans who donated a certain amount. As a result of the conversation, he would craft a personalized "theme song" for the fan to include on the album. Twelve "backers" took him up on that. Others will be rewarded with a private concert or an exclusive photo book on the album's creation. Many of their names are tattooed on Kreis' body in Terri Johnson's provocative but meaningful album artwork.
The exchange between the artist and his fans has translated into pure musical bliss. If pop/R&B radio still existed where DJ's could play what they wanted without the meddling of corporations, those DJs would be all over Imagine Paradise.
Kreis proves to be a master of the pop hook, paying homage at the same time as updating the swirling disco synth-string lines and electro-chirps of classic 1970s acts like Earth, Wind and Fire and Shalamar in a manner that is evocative; never derivative.
Knowing ears will hear echoes of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's "The Closer I Get To You" in the heart-melting piano phrase of the lead track, "Timeless (We Are)". "Timeless" is the kind of song that will make anyone who is in love feel exactly what's being sung, and make anyone not in love want to be.
That is doubly so of a later track called "All Over Again". Inspired by and written to celebrate the union of Erik and Jason Libey (two of the album's backers), if the love leaping through the speakers on "All Over Again" communicates even a fraction of the Libeys' connection, we should all be so blessed! The song is airy perfection with a chorus and chords that could reprise into infinity and I wouldn't give a whit. It's a stunningly good pop song that calls to mind an extremely rare and near lyric-less Michael Jackson demo I treasure called "Beautiful Girl".
That is how good Levi Kreis is.
In between the funky bass and drums of "Deeper Love" and the pulsing, urgent "4 Letter Word" (with its occasional split second rhythmic nod to Frankie Valli's "Grease") are infectious and irresistible dance tunes like "Any Way You Wanna," "Takin' Back My Boogie", "Love Revolution" and the lead single, "So Much Better." Elements of the latter three feature the album's most overt nods to Earth, Wind and Fire, with Kreis' multilayered vocal harmonies particularly impressive on "Boogie". It's fun to hear Kreis get a kick out of himself as his own "attitude chorus" at the top of the song.
"It Ain't Over" is a duet with now legendary singing powerhouse Sam Harris that clearly has its roots in the original "dueling diva" match of Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer on "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)." After years of female duos subsequently trying to equal the unforgettable success of that pairing, it's terrific to hear two men toss their hats into the ring of "diva-offs."
While the song is nowhere near a "rant" as most "diva-offs" can be, it showcases the soulful vocal prowess of both Kreis and Harris to great effect. The arrangement also manages a sly wink to the main hook from Lenny Kravitz's "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over" without sampling it. (Fun coincidence in this case: Kreis and Kravitz share the same initials).
Although the DNA of each song comes from the fan stories, Kreis skillfully links his own personal philosophy with them. As a licensed spiritual practitioner, he infuses each dance track or gorgeous love song with his message to listeners of living life consciously and realizing their greatness right now in this moment, if they do not already.
The first vocal sound on the album is an inhale of breath which is brilliantly bookended by the thematic exhale of the final track, "Let It Go." "Let It Go" is the ultimate summation of Kreis' message of empowerment and haunting in how it lingers after the fade out. It's a deeply moving closer for this beautiful, heart and soul filled album.
The world of pop music has changed so radically in my lifetime that I am not clear how society determines what "pop" is these days. By my definition and deep love for pop and R&B music, I can assure similar lovers of the form that they won't need to "imagine" paradise while listening to this record. Paradise is here.