The New York City band Skeleton Key’s 1997 major-label debut, Fantastic Spikes through Balloon, played out like a proof-of-concept demonstration that the saturated heft and zero-to-60 dynamics of “grunge” could be wed to the junkyard clang and poetic eccentricity associated with the visionary work of Tom Waits in the ’80s and early ’90s. Maybe Primus had already made the point, but there were still plenty of riches to mine there. Waits’s auspices (and specifically the influence of Rain Dogs and Bone Machine) were implicit across the entire album, but writ huge in flickering neon on one song in particular: a wheezy, detuned and disturbed little cabaret waltz called “The Only Useful Word” that sounded like it was trying to sneak its way onto Rain Dogs somewhere between “Tango till They’re Sore” and “Diamonds & Gold.”
The track used Waits’s now-commonplace tools of retro-Modernist musical alienation – filtered, distant vocals; a broken-toy groove; non-musical found sounds; and bursts of diminished dissonance – to express some clinically grim anti-sentiments: something about human beings as defective machines, I think. It was a fitting lyrical analogue for the skewed and plinky klutz-waltz sound, but it underscores how difficult it is to be truly like Tom. Waits’s delightfully spooked circus of sounds and styles – part old blues, part Kurt Weill, part ham radio – can be copped easily enough by the clever. But then there’s that stubborn, gritty sentimentality of his, the downtrodden-but-resilient heart croaking amidst the rattle of bones and the rolling of trashcans. That, it turns out, is the hard part.
It’s the part that maybe only comes with age, experience and the purification of intent. Twenty years later, we find one of Skeleton Key’s two songwriters, the Little Rock native Chris Maxwell, well-established as a Woodstock resident, a local scenester and a successful commercial producer/composer of the kind that rock ’n’ rollers sometimes grow up to be, if they are serious about the music part of music. He has also just released what is technically his solo debut record (with a big asterisk, for he has been the principal songwriter in a number of band projects). It’s a deftly crafted, multidimensional and musically stunning autobiographical journey called Arkansas Summer.
Arkansas Summer is all wet with poetic pathos, evocations of time and place, compassionate character studies and hard-earned redemptions. It is warm, deep, vulnerable and ultimately affirmative in all the ways that Skeleton Key could be cool, detached and sneering. Its first track, the Beatles-pretty-but-oddly-discomfiting “Strange Shadows,” employs the same kind of vocal filtering and disruptive dissonances that one might find on a Skeleton Key record, but to a diametrically opposite effect. The grainy, ambient smear of the production, the distance of Maxwell’s voice and some queasy pitch-glide effects all manifest the noise and warped distortions of time and memory that the singer must cross through to establish contact with his distant past – specifically with one figure: a father who abandoned a family, it seems. The strange shadows of the title describe the constant, peripheral presence of the absent in the singer’s life.
Themes of absence, missing persons and incompletion hang over the first movement of this conceptually unified record, in the exquisite “Imaginary Man” (a duet with Maxwell’s frequent collaborator Ambrosia Parsley), in the inverted-savior-myth, electric ragtime rocker “Have You Ever Killed Yourself?” and the comic barnyard blues stomp of “Mess of Things,” which might remind those in the know of “All the Things I’ve Lost”: one of Maxwell’s best tunes as a member of Skeleton Key, and a song that foreshadowed where the songwriter might be headed with the luggage of his past.
The journey gradually moves toward discovery and contact, but in strange and elliptical ways, the strangest of which is the weirdly Western and Arabesque diversion of the second-act-opening “Impossible Knot,” in which the singer establishes a surreal connection with a more remote and foreign ancestral past, a Middle Eastern forefather whose nomadic narrative points to an inherited and possibly genetic wanderlust.
Compositionally, Maxwell’s sweet spot balances his fluency with extended pop harmony (Beatles, Nilsson, Newman) with some vestigial art moves from his days on the faculty of the hard rock department of the New York avant-garde. There is very little combative or alienating about Arkansas Summer (except maybe the bizarre chord changes of the electro-pop anomaly “Away We Go”). Maxwell’s mature singing voice (which falls solidly on the Lennon/Tweedy spectrum) is both comfortable and vulnerable. The production and arrangement are graceful and natural. They take you to the strangest places gently. And the conceptual dimension of the record is agreeably optional. You can enjoy Arkansas Summer as an autobiographical linked narrative of sorts, or just as a really keen collection of expansive roots/pop gems that might give Wilco a little kick in the pants, many of which are going to sound simply awesome on WFUV. It’s really a masterpiece either way.
Chris Maxwell and a cast of local notables celebrate the release of Arkansas Summer with a show at BSP in Kingston on Friday, March 4 at 8 p.m. Admission costs $10 at the door. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com. For more on Chris Maxwell and Arkansas Summer, visit www.maxwellsongs.com.
Chris Maxwell CD release show, Friday, March 4, 8 p.m., $10, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.