In a time where clean, computer generated electronic music tops the charts, having an obsession with building lush ballads that fit into a long gone era is not the worst thing for budding musicians. This obsession is clear in Max Clarke, who writes and produces music under the moniker Cut Worms. On his debut album Hollow Ground, Clarke delivers 10 tracks that invoke mid-’60s nostalgia and marry it with modern indie-pop.
Clarke is able to create diverse sounding tracks that can all be described as 60’s pop without feeling too repetitive. Off the rip, Clarke uses clean, plucky guitars on “How It Can Be” to set up the nostalgia that will pervade the project. Immediately he shows off his prowess on “Coward’s Confidence”, building a lush instrumental that could be an outtake from a Pet Sounds era Brian Wilson. The tactile keys and muted horns drive the thick melody that is tinged with mid-60s nostalgia. In addition to guitar, Clarke provides bass and keys to the each of his tracks. But his standout musical performance across the project is on the lap steel. Playing the lap steel on “It Won’t Be Too Long,” “Think I Might Be In Love,” and “Hanging Your Picture Up To Dry” give each track a distinct folky, country twang to separate them from the other tracks. On the last track, “Mad About You,” Clarke uses piano to create a carnival-like song. Though not necessarily a track that would be considered a hit indie-rock song, he still gets his intentions across. The bizarre feeling of this off kilter carnival song draws attention to his lyrics and story. It breaks down in the bridge into a beautiful, dream-like trance before returning to madness.
If Clarke’s 60’s influence wasn’t clear in the production or songwriting, he makes it known in his vocal performance. He moves between influences fitting his unique voice into each mold. Early on he channels a Rubber Soul era John Lennon on “Cowards Confidence”, crooning at a high pitch and echoing that feeling of teenage longing. He’s able to turn the crooning on and off, innocently darting along the verses of “It Wont Be Too Long” like a young Harry Nilsson. The Midwestern-born, Brooklynite proves he has a little country twang in him on the song, “Hanging Your Picture Up To Dry.” Clarke brings his voice down a touch, doing his best Gram Parsons impression, giving the love-struck sadness it needs. On top of that, he strengthens each vocal performance by singing back up for himself.
Clarke’s lyricism manages to ride the fine line between catchy and simplistic lyrics and storytelling that is deeply impressive. On “Don’t Want to Say Good-bye”, Clarke effectively makes his point. The subject matter may lack originality but he finds a balance between bygone era lyricism and modern appeal. His comfort zone lyrically is clearly in channeling the feelings of teenage love. On “Think I Might Be In Love,” he asks “did you feel that too?” touching on the bittersweet angst of love. However on “Mad About You,” he uses vignettes of reality distorting itself to prove how insane he is about this person. Juxtaposing his madness in the verses with the chorus, “Wouldn’t it be nice to see you/Wouldn’t it be grand to know/You’re mad about me,” Clarke manages to distance himself from the angst of young love that permeates most of the track.
In a way, Hollow Ground is an album where Clarke grows up. Though on the surface it is ‘60s nostalgia and teenage love, Clarke proves himself to be more than just that. The real Max Clarke feels represented in this work and his realness deserves to be appreciated.
Cut Worm’s Hollow Ground is available May 4th, 2018 via Jagjaguwar.