Wednesday, June 17, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: Max Gowan - Big People



Around the same time I came across Will Weston's excellent album Heart of the Order, I was also introduced to the music of Max Gowan. He's a recent high school graduate from Raleigh, North Carolina who will be attending American University in Washington, DC in the fall. He's been playing guitar and singing since he was eight years old and has spent time studying jazz and music theory. Initially playing in a heavy metal band in high school, Max switched gears and released his first solo acoustic EP in 2014 which earned positive reviews and some solo acoustic shows around Raleigh. For Big People, his first full-length album, Max played all of the instruments and sang all of the vocals himself. The overall sound is one which he feels is more representative of who he wants to be as an artist. His influences include Wilco, Elliot Smith, Alex G, Elvis Depressedly (love that name!), and Deerhunter. These songs will be played around the Raleigh area this summer by Max and his band, The Estates.

I've gone through a few listens of Max's album now will go through it track by track for this review. In addition to the reference points he mentioned above, I also hear a lot of Death Cab for Cutie and Pavement in his sound, as well as a smattering of Graham Coxon's middle-period work where he straddled American lo-fi and classic British pop/rock. As before, I'll do my best to convey the flavor of the music through mere words. As Frank Zappa once said, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." And yet those of us who love both music and writing feel compelled to continue on this fool's errand...


1. Rare Thing starts the album off with some moody piano and acoustic guitar...it sounds a bit like Radiohead's "No Surprises" in terms of ambiance, or late 1990s Pavement.  Gowan's vocals sound a bit like Death Cab for Cutie, whose influence I detect running throughout the entire album (as you'll see). This is an excellent song and a great choice as an opening track.

2. Window, the second track, is very mellow and consists only of vocals and some shimmering electric guitar. It reminds me of early Semisonic, which is a good thing! This short tune leads right into...

3. Face This song is started off with some beautiful arpeggiated guitar and vocals. It sounds like late 1990s lo-fi,  Pavement influences mixed with a bit of Graham Coxon's more melodic late 1990s tendencies. I really like this one.

4. Another Lucy This one might just be my favorite track on the album. It has a jaunty acoustic guitar-driven rhythm and reminds me of a Bluetones song but at the same time is unique. Max's voice is really nice on this one and the maturity of his voice belies his young age. Great lyrics, too...wonderful song.

5. Bend This one starts off with an aggressively strummed acoustic intro that sounds a bit like Dave Matthews Band before the ethereal vocals come in. There are some really nice chord changes in chorus section that catch the ear upon first listen.

6. Big People The title track, which is usually the grand statement of any album, right? Bright guitar strums gently begin the song and it settles into a mellow 3/4ish tempo. There's a nice contrapuntal piano melody underneath the guitars...I get a definite Death Cab For Cutie vibe from this song in terms of both the music and the vocals. The middle section brings some delayed, psychedelic-sounding guitar to the fore that remain spacey as the as pinging guitars fade away with the song. A very strong song.

7. Here (Part 1) This one sounds like 1997-era Blur by way of Pavement or Death Cab For Cutie. There's a really nice chorus that contains an interesting chord thrown in that caught my ear the first time I heard it and still burrows its way in each time it comes around.

8. The Stumble A pretty instrumental consisting simply of melancholy acoustic guitar...a nice change of pace for the album, almost an aural palate cleanser before the last round of songs.

9. Snow A strong Death Cab For Cutie influence (at least to my ears), both in terms of the guitar sound and vocals, permeates "Snow," but it isn't simply derivative as there's something unique about it at the same time. There are some pretty chord changes and effective bits of dissonance playing off each other during the verse.

10. Open Letter to Heaven An acoustic-driven song that would not sound out of place at all on side two of Led Zeppelin III, at least musically. Fairly unique sounding track amongst the rest of the album and a nice way to show another aspect of Max's sound.

11. Here (Part 2) Continuing on from track 7, part 2 starts off with strummed dirty-toned electric guitar, a synthesizer, and glockenspiel. Perhaps more than anywhere else on the album, Gowan's vocals remind me of Death Cab as he's got some VERY Ben Gibbard-sounding vocals. In fact, when I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was listening to an unreleased Death Cab tune. I love the almost anthemic chorus...it's one of those that you could imagine people singing along to when played live. Overall, this song is like a wave: it starts off slowly and gently before gaining in intensity in the middle where it peaks before it eases back down for a gentle ending. Another definitely highlight of the album for me.

12. Everything is Cool I like this song...it's very fun! The beginning has a riff played in unison by an organ, an electric piano and bass guitar. The song reminds me of Pavement or other bands of that late 1990s era when I was in college, while the melodic synth riff that runs throughout gives it a bit of Blur touch.



After listening to Big People, the most striking thing to me was that this is a very, very good album made by someone who is still quite young. While there are a handful of songs I wrote in my teens that I'm still proud of and will still play in front of people, the majority of stuff I wrote at Max's age embarrasses me now. If I had written songs of the quality of Max's when I was 18, I'd be proud to play them twenty years later. His production is crisp and clean and while it doesn't sound like something that was recorded in a bedroom (which according to Max, is exactly where he made the recording), it has an intimate homemade charm that definitely comes across. If I have one criticism of the album, it would be mainly that all of the songs have a very similar mid-tempo feel. While the songs are interesting and varied enough so that they don't sound samey, the tempos do. In the future, mixing it up and changing the pace with some faster songs would make for even more effective pacing. However, given that Max Gowan is just entering adulthood and has already produced this solid, enjoyable record on his own, it bodes well for the future that there will be more good music in store.

***You can listen to and download Big People HERE and remember to please support independent musicians and their music. Buy it, listen to it, spread the word, go see them live! ***

3 comments:

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words as is listening to some sound bytes. :) But as you said, it's part of being a journalist. Good review, and album by Gowan.

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    1. Heh, good point!

      And I'm most impressed with how mature Max's songs and voice sound for him only being 18! I didn't sound nearly that good making my own music at 18...apart from a handful of songs I wrote in my younger days where I caught lightning in a bottle, I didn't start making music good enough to stand the test of time (for me) until I was in my mid-to-late 20s. If he hadn't told me his age, I'd never have guessed he was only 18. Impressive!

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  2. Great in-depth review. You don't read a lot of long form reviews these days and it is much appreciated. Great sophomore album.

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