Chris Maxwell Plays the Release Show For His Allusively Harrowing New Album at Hifi Bar
Lately, Chris Maxwell has been doing mostly tv and film work Back in the late 90s, he played in popular, skronky punk-funk band Skeleton Key. As you might expect from his background, his songwriting is very eclectic, closer to the former than the latter. He’s got an excellent new album, Arkansas Summer, streaming at Soundcloud and an album release show on March 9 at around 9:30 at Hifi Bar, a space he probably played back in the early zeros when it was Brownies and he was lead guitarist in a late version of White Hassle. As a bonus, his White Hassle bandmate Marcellus Hall, another first-rate, deviously funny songwriter, opens the night at around 8:30.
The album veers between simmering southern soul and Beatlesque psych-pop ballads in a brooding, vividly lyrical Elliott Smith vein. References to a violent chiildhood surface and resurface: this could be autobiographical, or just a good, allusively harrowing, Faulknerian yarn. It opens with the distantly wary trip-hop atmospherics of Strange Shadows, a cautionary tale:
Every time that I look down
Strange shadows on the ground…
You arrived with the perfect script
What did you write with it?
You wrote to your daughter
That you forgot her
The energy rises with the stomping, smoldering soul ballad Have You Ever Killed Yourself and its Elliottt Smith tinges. Imaginary Man also brings Smith to mind, but in more low-key mode with Maxwell’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar under Let It Be piano and swirly late Wilco ambience, a creepy, metaphorically-loaded tale about someone who might not be imaginary at all.
With its wry everything’s-gone-to-hell narrative, the gospel-infused Mess of Things looks back to Maxwell’s time in White Hassle: “St. Nicholas are you feeling dangerous, I’m here for a little angel dust,” its disoolute narrator announces. The title track is an ornate Abbey Road art-rock piano ballad:
A black-eyed susan in the road
Little man threw sticks and stones
And called her names and broke her bones
A big black crow in a robin’s nest
Left us all with a bloody mess
Little man, your days are numbered …
Impossible Knot is next, a briskly shuffling, uneasy minor key traveler’s tale:
Tried to fall asleep, fell into the grave of memories
That I made
But couldn’t keep
Devil Song goes back to surrealist trip-hop, a sardonic sympathy-for-the-devil narrative that Maxwell adds elegant Magical Mystery Tour orchestration to as it builds. Drunk Barber Shaved the World is as funny, and hair-raising, as its title implies, another Elliott Smith-style acoustic-electric shuffle. Maxwell spins a web of fingerpicked acoustic guitar over stark, stygian bowed bass in Things Have Changed For Me, a suspect tale from a guy whose long streak of bad luck and dubious choices doesn’t exactly foreshadow anything better.
Likewise, the understatedly frantic escape anthem Away We Go seems less than promising, a return to the outer-space metaphors that open the album. It closes with its most opaque number, Last Song, a mashup of trip-hop and delta blues that only raises the intrigue: does this troubled story end with the cops surrounding the house after a 9/11 call, or is there more to it than that? All the more reason to spin this mysterious, purist, immensely tuneful album multiple times.