Hearing Aide: Chris Maxwell’s ‘Arkansas Summer’

Chris Maxwell‘s Arkansas Summer is his first release as a solo artist, but the Woodstock resident first appeared in New York’s music scene in the mid-1990’s, when his band Skeleton Key became known for its well-tailored combination of unruly grunge and mass-appeal rock ‘n roll. The right-place-right-time conglomeration of sub-genres landed Skeleton Key a major label deal, resulting in the 1997 Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon. After a period of touring behind the album, hitting several continents and playing shows with some of the era’s best-known alternative acts, Maxwell left the band and struck out on his own.

In the time since, he’s accomplished seemingly everything in a solo career other than putting out an entire record under his own name. He’s been a producer, a co-writer, a composer for commercial projects like Bob’s Burgers and Inside Amy Schumer, and he’s used these experiences to built up to what is now Arkansas Summer, an album whose title fittingly circles back to the beginning of it all.While the album’s stylistic shifts and carefully unfolded genre transitions contextualize the extensive musical background Maxwell has developed, the album consistently stays grounded in the traditional americana influence of an upbringing in the South.

Leading with an ethereal, sentimental track titled “Strange Shadows,” the record quickly sets a standard for swift changeovers by evolving into “Have You Ever Killed Yourself,” an aurally uptempo song defined by its hammond organ grooves and its electric guitar riffs. The two songs show serious Jeff Tweedy characteristics in their personal lyricism and Maxwell’s seemingly cigarette-stained – yet controlled, graceful – vocals.

It’s the introduction to the album’s fourth track, which follows a brief recording of a woman candidly speaking in the assumed accent of Maxwell’s native Little Rock – driving home a wistful thematic overture of Maxwell’s roots – that the Tweedy comparison is at its most obvious. “Imaginary Man” begins with an intricate display of acoustic picking patterns coupled sparingly wth the musician’s engaging vocals. Eventually building up to a full-band finish reminiscent of Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers days, the track is a definite American Summer highlight.

Much like the initial stages of the record, tracks five through thirteen each show a different take on Maxwell’s ability to express his history through songwriting. “Arkansas Summer” is a patiently epic piano ballad, and “Devil Song” offers impressive production skills with its ominous and eclectic instrumentation.

It’s taken a long time and great deal of experience for Chris Maxwell to get to the point at which he finds himself with American Summer.  If the album feels like winding, compelling journey for the listener, it’s because this is exactly what shaped Maxwell’s ability to make the album. From start to finish, American Summer is the work of someone who has earned his credibility, his influence, and his wisdom.

Key Tracks: Imaginary Man, Arkansas Summer, Devil Song

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