Chris Maxwell Delivers Powerful Portraits With 'New Store No.2' (album stream + interview)
Singer-songwriter Chris Maxwell creates stately portraits of life while subverting musical expectations. New Store No.2 is the experimentalist's Americana.
The Arkansas-born musician has a storied career as a singer, guitarist, arranger, and producer. He established himself in the New York band Skeleton Key and has more recently worked as half of the Elegant Too production team (with Phil Hernandez), recording and composing music in that setting for television, including the Emmy Award-winning Bob's Burgers. He has produced artists such They Might Be Giant and Jon Spencer in addition to releasing solo albums such as Arkansas Summer.
In addition to being the principal songwriter and guitarist of the Gunbunnies, the first band to ink a major label deal out of Little Rock, Arkansas, Maxwell spent some of his musical apprenticeship in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked with legendary producer Jim Dickson and Grammy winner John Hampton.
New Store No.2's titular track was written about Maxwell's grandfather, a Lebanese immigrant who settled in a small Arkansas town and opened a store. A soulful, meditative track that provides listeners with a poignant character study that places listeners in the skin of the long-departed man for whom it was written. Creating such portraits is something at which Maxwell excels. There's the haunting "Eloise", an ode to a muse, perhaps real, perhaps imagined, that lingers long after its final notes have faded. "Jack Lee's Dead" is gripping, intense, yet never moves to the obvious places emotionally. At times reminiscent of the late Kevin Gilbert's ghostly ballads, it's further testament to Maxwell's formidable powers.
"Dear Songwriter" continues a long tradition of artists conversing with each other through distance and time. "The Song Turns Blue" proves the perfect closer, a brave and sometimes elliptical bit of writing that ultimately leads us back to where we began, the start of an album that satisfies on both the musical and emotional fronts, one that is relentless in revealing itself yet never exhausting.
In an era when so much music has become disposable, New Store No.2 proves indispensable, a companion you'll hold close and dear for a long time to come. Among those who join him on this journey are Rachel Yamagata, Marco Benevento, Amy Helm, Larry Grenadier, and longtime collaborator Ambrosia Parsley.
Maxwell recently spoke with PopMatters about the record and the process of finding the songs that comprise it.
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Your grandfather wound up being an important figure on this record.
I wrote the title track about him. It helped tie this record to Arkansas Summer. I thought I was done with that autobiographical 1970s thing. When I started working on this one, some of the same things started appearing, and I realized I had a Chapter Two.
Do you sit down and say, "Now it's time to write an album" or is it a matter of pulling together things you've been chipping away at for the last year or two?
A little of both. I think most songwriters always want to have their antennae up to see if you're picking up any signals. But there is the moment where you have to roll up your sleeves. I'll decide that I'm going to start going down that road. I gather my notes and see if I can make a record.
Was there a song on the record where, when you hear it now, you say, "Wow. I didn't see it going that way"?
The song that does that for me now is "Walking Through the Water". I had written it with a couple of things going through my head, things I was inspired by. It had Americana-based beginnings. The more I played it, I became disenchanted with it. It was another derivative, Neil Young, mid-tempo kind of thing. Wilco has kind of perfected what I was trying to do.
The song is one chord, but the bass note changes. I had a bunch of other chords and a bridge, but to shock myself out of the hole I was in, I looped the one chord, changed the bass note, and went as minimal as I could. I don't think that thing reads as Brian Eno-inspired, but there was a little bit of him in terms of the inspiration for this version. I layered slowly and tried to keep away from old tricks, mainly staying away from the acoustic guitar.
I had some really great players. Jesse Murphy and Aaron Johnson, who both play with Brazilian Girls, are both amazing. They've been playing together for years. They locked in and got this huge rhythm section going. Then I thought, "Maybe I'll put horns on this and see what that sounds like." I had a wonderful guy, Jay Collins, who did a horn arrangement. With a little help from my friends, I figured out how to avoid the Harvest Moon groove. "Dear Songwriter" is another one that I approached differently.
I'm glad you mentioned that one. It's one of my favorites on the album. Where did that come from?
That was an older idea. It was originally called "Song to Another Songwriter" and was just kind of clunky. It never got beyond a rough idea. As I was putting this record together, I went back to it. Again, I was trying to untether it from the acoustic guitar and the singer-songwriter clichés, which is really what the song is about. I re-wrote the lyrics.
I showed it to [keyboardist] David Barron (Lumineers, Bat For Lashes), and he said, "There's too many chords." I said, "I don't want to take the chords out." He started impressionistically smearing the chords with the keyboards. When you hear that song start, it doesn't sound very clear. It's an almost ambient wash. That was a big moment. I didn't have to spell out what was going on harmonically with the guitar. Aaron Johnson came in and did some really cool electronic drumming and some drum machine. Cheme [Gastelum, The Dap Kings] played baritone sax on the choruses. It hits really hard on the choruses.
Initially, it was more like the Pixies, my loud moment. Instead of using guitars, I thought the baritone sax was a different way to approach that heaviness. That's an old trick, a pre-distorted guitar trick. It just sounds like rock 'n' roll.
What made "Birdhouse" the tune that kicked off the album?
I gave Janet Steen, the woman who wrote the liner notes, the music, and hadn't sequenced the album yet. Maybe because it starts with a "b", it was at the very top of the list of tracks. When we were talking about it, she said, "Oh, I love the way you open the record up with 'Birdhouse.'" I had never even considered it. I had had a sequence going, but then I changed it and put that first. It changed everything.
What made "The Song Turns Blue" the closer?
That was one of the most tortuous musical experiences of my entire life. That might have been the first song I wrote and said, "I'm starting the record now." I wrote it very quickly and was excited about it. I did a solo acoustic recording of it. I did a demo and thought it was cool. But I was bored with solo acoustic guitar. It's epic lyrically, and I figured it needed to be epic in terms of production.
There were a lot of dead ends. I went down so many weird paths, trying to find where it needed to be. But it paid off. I got exactly where I wanted to get. It was not easy. It's a conventional song, nothing that radical. But the trajectory was difficult to make work. There wasn't something I could look at, reference, and say, "That'd be cool if I could do that." I had to go through the process to make it work.