Written by: Dave Cantrell
Feeling both ahead and behind a schedule that in large part doesn’t even exist – for this writer, never has the title of Elvis Costello’s “Man Out of Time” felt more accurate – we here at Stereo Embers, like most of you we suspect, are playing a random, scattershot version of catch-as-catch-can when it comes to, well, life in general but more specifically in our case, album reviews.
Now, to be honest, that’s not exactly a status that requires the calendar-shredding effect of a shelter-in-place lockdown for us to find ourselves in – albums arrive amidst enough of a swirl in ‘normal’ life to make decent coverage a challenge – but from what we’ve been able to tell, nearly everyone finds themselves, in their own way, seized by the paralysis of an enforced immobility. Stated in “Wizard of Oz” terms, that tornado that displaced our dear Dorothy is, in our current pandemic context, fueled by the fierce winds of nothingness that keep dropping us into the dry barren fields of a place called Anomie.
But really, enough is enough, the time has come to rally, shake off our torpor, gather our wits and words about us and get to it. Welcome, then, to Quarantine Age Kicks, where your correspondent is metaphorically (and to some extent literally) locked in a room with just himself and his thoughts on a stack of recent and/or upcoming releases. Which also, come to think of it, doesn’t sound so different from how it’s ever been but oh my hell is it different, so SO different. Anyway, if you would, have a read, give a listen, support the artists when able. Thank you.
Chris Maxwell “New Store # 2” on Max Recordings
As we whip-sawed through various clever-clever suggestions as to what this column would be called, among the fleeting nominees that just couldn’t find its footing was ‘COVID’s Metamorphases,’ so it seems fitting that our first subject would be Chris Maxwell, a musician whose first flirtation with success (after breaking down the door with Little Rock’s Gunbunnies) was as a founding member of spiky, deceptively complex alterna-rockers Skeleton Key back in the last-gasp, juggernaut Nineties, a decade that, beginning as it did with Bleach-era Nirvana and ending with Napster, felt so bold and transformative in its day but now seems so relic-y it may as well sit on time’s dusty shelf next to a Victrola. While a graying contingent of bands and their fans cling to those halcyon vestiges, when MTV was actually still a thing and the ‘industry’ enjoyed what would be its final run at its old school, shamelessly exploitative business model (those were the days, eh?), the sharper wiser ones adapted, grew with the oftentimes jarring changes, meeting the challenges of a rapidly ever-shifting landscape as an opportunity. It’s on that evolutionary path that we find Mr Maxwell.
Post post-grunge the guitarist has expanded his résumé over the past twenty-plus years to include the job titles songwriter, singer, producer and arranger. It’s in those latter two roles that he’s not only carved out a viable income stream – composing scores and intros for a fair number of high profile TV series (No Reservations, Inside Amy Schumer, on and on) as one half of Elegant Two while also sitting behind the desk for the likes of They Might Be Giants among many others – but as well built a sufficient enough reputation along the way that musician pals such as Rachel Yamagata, Amy Helm, Cindy Cashdollar and Marco Benevento (to name but a handful) were happy to join him at his home-adjacent Goat House studio in Woodstock to help bring this second solo full-length to fruition. All of which wouldn’t mean bupkis if the songs weren’t there but trust us, just as on debut Arkansas Summer, that’s not an issue here.
That first record was akin to a deeply wrought, collaborative autobiography co-written by Maxwell and the Arkansas he grew up in – seldom has the voice of place been so present in song – and New Store # 2 feels both a sequel to and a broadening of that beginning chapter. From the summer lovely, somehow poignant “Birdhouse” on which it launches, painted in gently pointillistic detail, through to the masterful “The Song Turns Blue” at album’s end with its peak Dylan flourishes of lyric that also can’t help but provide a sense of textual bookending – “It all starts with some small thing/like a goddamn bird with a song to sing” is how it begins – Maxwell’s songs exhibit a narrative nous that compares favorably to not only Mr Zimmerman but those other titans of the restless americana consciousness such as Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, and Steve Earle. As such, his, work skirts with an effortless authority past the singer/songwriter tropes of a dour earnestness drifting against the winds of a dry acoustic strum. It’s not folk, it’s not rock, it’s not folk rock. It’s songwriting from an intimate archivist with a gifted short story writer’s flair that, due his well-honed producer chops, just happens to come wrapped inside subtly sumptuous arrangements, In short, New Store # 2 has the tunes.
“Walking Through the Water,” limning the line between immortal CSN and Hissing-era Joni, possesses every ounce of plaintive yearning candor that comparison suggests (appropriate given the track tackles the addiction-related death of Maxwell’s younger brother), the ageless “I Wasn’t Concerned Till Now” pulls off the tricky merging of the epic near-cinematic with what seems the diary entries of a desperate heart, while the title track, presenting like the ultimate updated street corner doo-wop, is in fact a master class in biographic song structure, Maxwell essaying the story of his Beirut-born grandfather K. J. Jamell (the proprietor of new store # 2) in a warm current of expert couplets that are so damn rich and concise as to seem divinely received. Add to that, layered throughout, the touches of color – the cello and wah-wah electric interlude tucked into “I Wasn’t Concerned..,” the unexpected heartbreak of pedal steel in “Cause and Effect,” the discreet emotive use of horns – are so unobtrusively deft they tend to stand out, thereby becoming indispensable in a stroke.
As I’ve said countless times in the last eleven years writing for SEM, the delight inherent in being the go-to albums reviewer is the gratification that comes with discoveries of the heretofore unknown. Didn’t know enough of Gunbunnies or Skeleton Key to know of Chris Maxwell, and missed his (since-caught-up-to) debut, all of which, to be sure, falls under the ‘regrettable but can’t hear everything’ header, but has the happy inverse effect of releasing a flood of endorphins once the introduction’s made. While, yes, as Mr Lydon wisely informed us decades ago, anger is an energy, but so is joy – which among much else New Store # 2 delivers – and joy, in this moment, is far more needed.[find New Store # 2 here]