Abraham Levitan + Devin Davis = Teletype

Eleven years ago, Chicago singer-songwriter Devin Davis released one of my favorite records of 2005, Lonely People of the World, Unite! — a one-man studio masterpiece — and I’ve been waiting for another Devin Davis record ever since. He’s told me that he’s been working on music, but not to expect anything anytime soon.

Another promising Chicago musical act, a quirky group called Baby Teeth, called it quits in 2012 — and its frontman, singer-keyboardist Abraham Levitan hasn’t released a record since (though he founded the Piano Power collective of music teachers and co-hosted a monthly game show at the Hideout, Shame That Tune).

Now, Levitan has teamed up with Devin Davis, forming the duo Teletype, with a full-length album called Spontaneity out today on iTunes.


Here’s how the Teletype press release describes their collaboration:

In late 2013, Abraham asked Devin if he wanted to try some Postal Service-style remote collaboration. Abraham had a new batch of songs he was excited about, the result of a recent residency at Chicago’s legendary club, The Hideout. He thought Devin would be the ideal collaborator for bringing the songs into Technicolor. Despite their living about a mile from each other in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, each was intrigued by the idea of working remotely.

Abraham says, “I went over to Devin’s home studio with my songs and played piano-and-vocal versions over the course of two nights. He then spent the next two and a half years – no joke – adding layers of instrumentation and production. It’s a kind of collaboration that I’ve never done before, and the results are pretty amazing.”

And indeed, you can really hear Devin Davis’ studio magic at work in these recordings — even though the main voice and songwriting talent here is Leviton. (But no, the wait for another Devin Davis album isn’t over. The world still needs a follow-up to Lonely People of the World, Unite!)

The concept of remote collaboration isn’t the only way Teletype resembles Postal Service. Like that band, Teletype evokes an earlier era of synthesizer-based pop hits. But Teletype’s Spontaneity draws on a wider range of genres and influences, from 1970s Queen records to Elvis Costello, the Pet Shop Boys and Oranges and Lemons-era XTC. At least, that’s what it sounds like to me. In its own press release, Teletype cites other influences — Paul McCartney, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd and The Band.

Levitan proves himself a strong songwriter here, with sturdy melodies and smart, well-crafted lyrics. And Davis shows that Lonely People of the World, Unite! was no fluke. He’s a master of constructing multilayered rock songs in the studio. These songs are filled with sonic touches and flourishes — at one second, it’s an acoustic guitar or something resembling a harpsichord, at another moment, it’s the deep gurgling noise of some sort of synth. And yet, these arrangements don’t feel too busy. Davis and Levitan have countless sonic ingredients at their disposal, but they’ve chosen well when they’ve decided what to put in each layer.

What are the future prospects for Teletype? The press release cheekily concludes:

While their joint public appearances are exceedingly rare, rumor has it that Teletype will be celebrating with a record-release dinner party at an undisclosed location.

The 1900s and Devin Davis at Schubas

My main reason for going to Schubas tonight was the chance to see Devin Davis with a full band. As I’ve mentioned before, Davis’ record, Lonely People of the World, Unite!, was one of my favorites in 2005. I saw him at the Hideout in February, but I missed the shows he did with his band and caught a solo night — which was interesting, but not quite the same thing as hearing the songs in the full-band glory.

Davis sounded good tonight, backed by pedal steel guitar, drums, bass and keyboard/sax. The songs were a little less polished sounding than the studio versions, but they still sounded pretty darn strong — and I like the new songs he played. He closed with “Born to Run,” which was shown on the set list simply as “THE BOSS.” After the show, Devin told me he’d started working at 8:30 that morning on writing lyrics for one of the new songs. SEE PHOTOS OF DEVIN DAVIS.

Davis wasn’t actually the headlining act — that honor belonged to the 1900s. I’d read some of the local articles about this band and heard one or two of their songs online, but I didn’t know too much about them. They were quite impressive, doing delightfully, well, “twee” music… and I don’t mean that as an insult. I like twee. At least, when it’s done well. I’ve always liked Belle and Sebastian, the band shown in the dictionary next to the word twee, and the 1900s play music in a similar vein. Not that you’d mistake it for Belle and Sebastian, but it’s another big ensemble (seven musicians and singers, including violin) with guy and girl singers, doing pretty pop ditties. I liked what I heard — and saw. One of the singers, Jeanine O’Toole, was clearly the focus of much of the audience’s eyes as she accented the music with her flirtatious moves. The crowd right in front of the stage was almost all women, obviously big fans of the 1900s, cheering wildly throughout the show. After the show, I picked up a copy of the 1900s’ six-song EP, Plume Delivery, and I’m already enjoying it quite a bit.SEE PHOTOS OF THE 1900s.

I missed most of the opening set by the first band of the night, Gentleman Caller of Bloomington, Ind., but I liked what I heard. Will definitely check them out. SEE PHOTOS OF GENTLEMAN CALLER.

Devin Davis at the Hideout

FEB. 23, 2006
The Hideout, Chicago

After raving last year about Devin Davis‘ album, Lonely People of the World, Unite! (and being the only critic to vote for his song “Giant Spiders” as one of the songs of the year in the Pazz & Jop poll), I finally got around to seeing him perform in concert. Too bad I missed the earlier Wednesday-night shows in his February residency at the Hideout. I would have liked to see him play with a full band.

Still, it was entertaining and impressive to see what he could do as a one-man band. Davis used the same sort of looping pedals that Andrew Bird uses to build multiple-track songs in concert, right in front of the audience’s eyes. Davis clobbered on the drums for some songs, creating slightly off-kilter percussion tracks, and then played on top of those beats with guitar and harmonica. The drumming loops had some fun moments, but it was more impressive when Davis used the looping pedals to harmonize with his own vocals, or to create a droning chord with his harmonica. He also played Theremin, demonstrating nice pitch control on the notoriously tricky instrument as he added “God Bless America” at the end of one song.

Davis opened with an unusual cover, Wilco’s “At Least That’s What You Said” — perhaps a nod to the fact that one member of Wilco, Mikael Jorgensen, had just opened for him. Davis apologized, “I hope that wasn’t too cheesy.” No, it wasn’t cheesy at all. It was a shadow of the Wilco original, but still a nice tribute to Chicago’s best-known band. Davis made a good attempt at duplicating the guitar/drum solo at the end of the song by going wild on the harmonica.

He also played a new song on a various-artists compilation from Kill Rock Stars, and he also did a cover of the Mississippi John Hurt song “Blessed Be the Word of the Lord,” noting, “I’m not very relgious, but it’s a good fucking song.” For the most part he played the songs from Lonely People. It was a little ramshackle, maybe not the best introduction to Davis for newcomers, but further proof of his mad-scientist capabilities.

JOHN KLOS (formerly of The Boas) was the first performer of the night, playing rather sleepy but pretty songs on keyboards and guitar, backed up by a second guitarist. I enjoyed Kloss’ music, but it would be nice to hear fuller arrangments of some of the songs. At one point, when the music threatened to get upbeat, he commented, “Pop songs? That’s up to you.”

MIKAEL JORGENSEN of Wilco was second on the bill. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Jorgensen is best known as the guy with the laptop who has incorporated sampled noise into the Wilco concert sound, but he also plays keyboard. In his solo show tonight, he was pretty impressive on both keyboards and guitar as he sang pop tunes — ranging from Randy Newman-style numbers on the piano to Flaming Groovies-ish power pop on guitar. Backed by a bassist and drummer, Jorgensen showed that he’s a fair vocalist — nothing special, but nothing bad, either. His songs show promise. Damn, Wilco sure has a lot of talented members.


A Promotion Plug for Devin Davis

I beseech you: Buy Devin Davis’ Lonely People of the World, Unite!

Or at least listen to some of the songs:

I love this record…

Those of you who dislike Death Cab For Cutie, please don’t be put off by the fact that Ben Gibbard is a Devin Davis fan (as mentioned in my story)… They don’t really sound anything alike. Death Cab’s gone all wimpy (in my opinion), but at least Gibbard can recognize some music that’s kicking his ass when he hears it.

Devin’s playing stuff that sounds like Village Green Preservation Society mashed together with the Shins, Matthew Sweet, early ’70s Bowie, “Baba O’Riley” and Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage.” And the lyrics are brilliant — funny and occasionally apocalytpic. He played almost all of the instruments himself and released this record by himself.

Did I mention you should buy his record?