In the poem “Adam’s Curse,” W. B. Yeats wrote, of poetry:
…A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
It’s an oft-quoted passage that gets right at the problem and paradox of labor in art, where one sweats bullets to appear entirely unlabored. A related-but-more-prosaic (and dubious) sentiment passed around as cardinal truth in writers’ workshops is this: “Your theories are showing.” Substitute “underpants” for “theories” to grasp the gist: Your intellectual substructures and theoretical groundings as an artist – the Barthes and Baudrillard and Bible you’ve been reading for depth – should remain fully “sub” and in the ground at all times, according to Hemingway and Iowa, and never trouble the reader’s field of vision. “Show, don’t tell,” we chant as the very first commandment of the craft, for to tell is a bush-league foul. Now go deep-sea fishing and get some soul.
I’m thinking of these things on the occasion of our friend Chris Maxwell’s new release, New Store No. 2. Maxwell’s creative struggle is, by his own account and in his own metaphor, a heated angel/devil dialogue between a lust for innovation, experimentation, novelty, cleverness and strangeness on the devil’s shoulder and the angels advocating Spartan values of universality, song-centered simplicity and fresh invention within familiar conventions. In recent years, it has been a remarkably fertile internal debate. His 2016 high-concept collection Arkansas Summer inhabited a Wilcoesque progressive roots/rock place, but without nearly as much casual slather. It was a sequence of acutely wrought personal songs fleshed out in vivid sonic detail, but never lost in minutiae, forest for trees.
New Store No. 2 is unquestionably even more ambitious and more of a big picture/little picture riddle. The gentle acoustic waltz “Birdhouse” kicks things off comfortably enough, but at the same time it introduces a harmonic vocabulary that is anything but conventional, a habit of distressing the fringes of even the sweetest ballads with electro angst and fritz and a network of deep symbols that the rest of the album will invoke as its stories, themes and obsessions accrete. Not exactly Hank Sr. stuff, but it’s “just” a really pretty song too.
About a third of New Store No. 2 (co-produced by Maxwell and the great drummer/producer Jeff Lipstein) is devoted to hard-grooving soul tunes – a staple across Maxwell’s long career, but there’s a catch here too. While the title track leans in the retro soul direction you’re probably imagining, the oblique song about addiction “Walking through the Water” and the absolutely slamming revisionist scripture of “Most of What I Know I Learned from Women” are rife with facile, modern-production R&B moves. When the analog blip groove of “Walking through the Water” transitions imperceptibly from drum machine to drum guy, you begin to get the secret: Maxwell has an enormous tool chest as a writer, arranger, player, sound designer and producer. And he is afraid to use it.
Those groove songs are masterfully deployed to disguise one potentially problematic fact about New Store No. 2: This record is about 50 percent art ballad. Its ballads account for both its weirdest and its simplest and rawest moments, from the murder narrative “Jack Lee’s Dead,” on which a tense modernist chord progression is banged out Lennon-style on a saloon piano, to the heartbreaking and naked “Cause and Effect,” the true story of the car crash that claimed the life of Maxwell’s childhood friend, which Maxwell witnessed from the passenger seat.
This record feels entirely epic, a journey you come out of changed, and shocked that it clocks in at well under 40 minutes (36 and change). That kind of voodoo is not come by easily. So how did Chris Maxwell acquire these lavish skills and this rare, seasoned big-picture maturity? Let’s review. The longtime Woodstock resident is best-known today as half of Elegant Too (with Phil Hernandez), the commercial composition-and-production team that writes music for the animated show Bob’s Burgers and that has lent its wildly imaginative production and arrangement flourishes to a nice list of industry heavies.
Before that, Maxwell had not one, but two major label runs as principal songwriter. First, in the late ’80s, he fronted the criminally obscure, post-early-REM (did I just say that?) brainy janglers the Gunbunnies, the first band from Little Rock ever signed to a major. Memphis legend Jim Dickinson produced their debut, 1989’s Paw Paw Patch. It didn’t come out in the spectacularly broken and chaotic ways that Maxwell had hoped: the train-wreck form that Dickinson had shown on Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers or the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me. Paw Paw Patch’s foul was a bit of sterility and infertility, for which Dickinson later actually apologized. Maxwell still credits him as the man from whom he learned the most about the alchemy of turning myth into music, but after a propitious and heralded start, the Gunbunnies fizzled.
Maxwell brought a big bag of new songs with him when he moved to New York City. There, however, he quickly fell in with a promising project of a very different kind: the abrasive and noirish New York alt- and art-rockers Skeleton Key. Maxwell supplied most of the band’s more traditional songs; bassist Eric Sanko (Lounge Lizards) wrote the stuff that made explicit the band’s connection to the downtown avant-garde. Their major-label debut, 1997’s Fantastic Spikes through Balloon, remains a curious gem of the era, ripe for rediscovery should the ’80s ever let go of the culture and let the ’90s come back into fashion. Skeleton Key had a good run.
From there, you know, the standard plot: life, family, career sustainability, upstate, but with a wrinkle. Nearly 20 years into his identity as commercial composer and producer, Maxwell delivers these exquisite, thematically unified and acutely realized confessional records in the tradition of the great albums of the ’70s. Hear this part well: At my age (and we’ll leave it at that), and after all this, the man is doing what is not just the best work of his career, but really, the best work of almost anyone’s career, if you ask me. It’s really up to the audience now.
You’re an expert album-maker in what we are told, over and over, is the new singles era and the playlist era, where songs may ship in clusters reminiscent of album-oriented-rock, but in practice they are so much digital loose change.
It’s a cyclical process. There’s always been ups and down of focus on singles and focus on albums. I think that’s going to be an ongoing thing, and I am not opposed to changes in the way we think about distribution – releasing individual songs instead of releasing a clump, wait three years, and another clump. I see good things about smaller clumps. What I don’t subscribe to are shitty singles, one after another.
The whole experience that I wanted to indulge in was a ten-song A-side/B-side experience, the early ’70s confessional record, the album as almost a literary event, a novella that’s autobiographical. It tells mini-stories that all add up to one thing: Plastic Ono Band, or a James Taylor record. I wanted New Store No. 2 to be seen in that context. I really went out of my way this time with the liner notes [by the writer Janet Steen] and everything to make a sit-down listening and reading experience. I got rid of the TV in my living room. I buy vinyl. I put records on and read the liner notes and credits. I hate that we’ve lost the written word part of the musical experience that I grew up with. The physical record itself contained information that was vital to the experience.
Anyway, I might be done with that now. I don’t know. I thought I was done with it after Arkansas Summer, and then these new songs started appearing.
New Store No. 2 is a real studio piece: tons of background vocals, lots of high-character signature sounds, a fairly large cast of instrumental voices – horns, strings, novel sound design. How are you approaching the live set for this week in Woodstock and the City?
We’re trying to get fairly close. We’re using two drummers for this show and bringing as many players as we can: horn players, background singers. If I may say so, the songs are sturdy enough to be reinterpreted in different ways; but this might be my only chance to execute the record closely.
I love experimenting. I love to deconstruct. I love to define weird sounds that no one has ever heard before with samples and processing. I love the process of messing things up. But there’s a balancing act between sonics and keeping the singer and the song true and honest and free of gimmicks. How do you make this thing sound familiar and comfortable? I love Beefheart, but I’m not going to make a Beefheart record. How can you get those two values to coexist? You’re listening and you’re like, “I hear Bill Withers but I also hear, like, a Year 2020 low-end thing happening,” or “The bass doesn’t sound like a bass guitar; it sounds like 808s playing underneath, but they’re playing a 1950s chord progression.” That’s just stuff. I love to tickle my brain with it, and I love to use it as a tool to keep you from falling asleep. How many times can you hear someone repeat the same Neil Young Harvest rhythm, no matter how good the song is? They say taste is habit, and you have to beware of that.
So, I try to dislodge the song from this sort of habitual way of performing it. With “The Song Turns Blue,” I think I recorded 12 totally different versions. It’s just me chasing one thing after another, and having really great arrangements and great performances by people I brought in, and they will never see the light of day because, in the end, none of it was actually serving the lyrics. It’s the balancing act, as you try to a) execute the song well, so you don’t lose the story, and b) keep people from falling asleep when listening to new music.
Chris Maxwell celebrates the release of New Store No. 2 on Saturday, February 29 at Colony in Woodstock. The core lineup includes drummers Manuel Quintana and Jeff Lipstein, bassist Mark Lerner, keyboardist Sarah Perrotta and vocalist Ambrosia Parsley. Tickets cost $12 in advance and $15 on the day of the show. The Shivers open. New Store No. 2 is available at all online outlets.
Chris Maxwell debuts New Store No. 2
Saturday, Feb. 29, 8 p.m.
22 Rock City Rd., Woodstock