On his debut proper for Secretly Canadian Max Clarke invokes swooning ‘60s doo-wop, country shimmer, a dash of Danny Elfman’s quirk and plenty of love for The Kinks. Hollow Ground is particularly steeped in the Muswell Hillbilies era of the latter band, creating characters that are rough around the edges, but easy to love. He’s a storyteller in the country tradition, with few of his heroes coming out unscathed, but these tear-in-beer anthems find themselves in more precious terrain than hardscrabble hollows. While his shiny, shaggy country-folk cold easily find a kindred spirit in the likes of Sonny and the Sunsets and perhaps even slide after Beechwood Sparks on your infinite alt-country playlist, Clarke is crafting turn-key dioramas that are stuffed with moving parts that all seem to delight the listener rather than overwhelm the sense.
He’s crafting calliope wonderlands on “Cowards Confidence,” sweeping out a bar room tear-jerker on “It Won’t Be Too Long” and evoking the heartfelt warmth of John Denver or Neil Diamond on “Like Going Down Sideways.” The record flips the dial around enough mid-60s pop nuance it could practically qualify as a Wes Anderson soundtrack, all that’s missing are a few interludes from Mark Mothersbaugh. And just as often as the films connected to those soundtracks, Hollow Ground is a splash of colors, intricate draping and meticulous craftsmanship housing characters with a heavy heart and more than a dash of ennui.
Clarke’s skill is apparent here and its an impressive album for a debut – If this is only the start, one has to wonder how far he’ll go in time. Come for the whimsy, stay for the endlessly enjoyable songs that burrow deep with earworms and just a touch of aural pizazz.
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