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