Max García Conover: Burrow

Gone to ground

Surviving winter with Max García Conover

Part of what made Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago so instantly important was the almost tangible feeling of solitude it conveyed. Even if Justin Vernon’s words were muffled and muted at times, it didn’t matter. You feel like you were right there in that cabin in the woods with him.

Max García Conover’s debut full-length, Burrow, doesn’t rise to the emotional heights of that album, but it shares a starkness, like listening to music through an Instagram filter, that conveys that same feeling of going to ground. Recorded in an attic studio over the winter by Pete Morse, the album is full of brief songs (just one of the 11 goes past three minutes) that can pass you by like a wisp of emotion triggered by a memory that’s just out of reach.

Morse is more than just engineer, though. While Conover takes center stage with a fast and note-filled fingerstyle guitar playing and a resonant lower-register vocal, Morse chimes in and fills out with hints of guitar lines, doubling down on the atmosphere. Combine all that with Conover’s penchant for jamming lyrics into tight spaces and going outside your standard subject matter (this may be the only album you listen to this year to feature a woodthrush) and the album can at times feel like watching old super 8 movies on a projector that’s moving slightly too fast.

“New Beast” is a stand out, with Sophie Nelson lending accompanying vocals for the entire track and more of a melodic hook than most songs here. Conover is accusatory: “You can talk of nothing … I don’t know what you’re for.” His playing is particularly engaging on “The Glow #4,” where he sits on top of a Morse guitar like an organ line that is a warmth to indicate nostalgia: “There she goes / Grabbing from her tiptoes / And staggering, staggering.”

The best track, though is the longest and almost hidden at the end of the album. “The Wedding Line” maybe stands out mostly for Conover’s solitary use of a more traditional strum, and vocals like he’s whispering in your ear so that you can almost feel his breath on your neck. Like the best Wesley Allen Hartley songs, I found myself straining to make out every word and was often pleased when they came into focus: “Everybody calls her a poet / But they say it when they’re rolling their eyes.”

There’s a lot to unpack here and spring seems like a good time to air it out.

Photo Credit: Greta Rybus

Darien Brahms: Dogwood

Love always, Darien

Brahms’ fifth is a big red flag

Why does a person spend 20 years in Portland making music, releasing records, and playing shows? Ask Darien Brahms. Her fifth album, Dogwood, celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hello, Hello to the People, a disc (available on iTunes, by the way) that doesn’t sound altogether different from what we’re hearing today (sometimes. She doesn’t play out much anymore): brassy vocals that can punch you in the gut, vampy strut, a little bit of twang and blues amongst the rock, and maybe a ballad to make things girly every once in a while.

Ultimately, most artists keep on keeping on because they don’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. They need that combination of release and response that making music for other people creates, that feedback cycle that can ultimately be both euphoric and heartbreaking. A lot like love.

So it’s no surprise that Brahms, here on Dogwood, is like a fickle lover, toying with her audience. Out of the gate, she’s “Queen of Porn,” aggressive over driving horns (Brian Graham, Lucas Desmond, Dave Noyes), a persistent wood block, and a rocking strut: “Sooner or later, we all fall like Rome.” But by the following “Big Red Flag” she’s got a bluesy come on that’s hard not to get on board with: “Oh, take me please, and don’t send me back again.”

It’s that push and pull, that “Jekyll and Hyde” experience of sunshiney guitar in the open, but diving toward melancholy in a hurry. Of a bullfighter prepping for a bout in the ring, but having second thoughts: “you taste like a flower / You smell like a chocolate.”

There’s a little of that cow-punk some people know Brahms for, and she’s brought along Cartwright Thompson for some pedal steel. There’s a throwback reggae-flavored track in “Veni Vidi Vici” that’s like a modern-day turning of “Sandy” from the Grease soundtrack on its head. “If I neglected to mention,” Brahms croons, “I’m the empress of all.”

Without doubt. There are any number of us who’d hand her the keys to the city, elect her mayor, and get out of the way. Which makes the whispered, repeating “I fucking love you” in the middle of the just-plain-filthy “Black Eye” so utterly delicious. We fucking love you right back, Darien. Just keep putting an album out every five years so we remember just how much.