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

Tall Horse: Glue

Tall Horse, short album

With Glue, they leave you wanting more

If Sláinte did nothing more than allow Nick Poulin the time and space to get Tall Horse together, its legacy may be pretty well secure. Who knows what will eventually come of the band, but Glue, as a six-song introduction to the world, is a damn fine work filled with highly listenable, ’90s-style indie rock, with some slo-core and alt-country mixed in.

Like Toronto’s collection of bands and musicians that make up Broken Social Scene, the core of people who flitted through Sláinte over the years has created a sound you can hear in Dustin Bailey Saucier’s various incarnations (new album coming soon), in bands like Worried Well and Boxes and First in Maths, and now in the three-piece Tall Horse, which gets plenty of help from the likes of Saucier and Forget, Forget’s Tyler DeVos.

Though with bassist Dom Grosso (Boxes, and any number of other projects) and drummer Devin Ivy (Lisa/Liza), Poulin has a plenty-tight core. Grosso is happy to take over the melody of a chorus and Ivy plays with a loose and elastic style that mimics Poulin’s fluctuating moods, working transitions especially well. Poulin, himself, is in the Doug Martsch (Built to Spill), Jeff Martin (Idaho) class, both somewhat downtempo and fully emotionally invested, holding in the upper register but never quite moving into a falsetto.

And he’s miserly with his lyrics, mulling lines over in his mouth, repeating them into meaninglessness, then hammering home an idea with a quick aside.

“Walk of Shame” is the epitome of his direct approach, neither judging nor particularly surprised: “Drinkin’ till you’re fucking what’s his name/ Walking home that morning dressed the same.” Similarly, the open here is the best of what is a consistently great acoustic guitar sound, captured by engineer Jayson Whitmore (his brothers are the guys in Caro Khan) at his Penumbra Recordings. Then Ivy counts in on his sticks and the Patia Maule violin and swirling Saucier electric guitar are just the right kind of post-drunk remorse, miserable and a little bit clumsy, but damn if that wasn’t a good time.

Tack on Maule’s backing vocals and extra contribution of tasteful piano near the finish, plus a meandering guitar solo and Grosso’s tossed off bass lick to close the piece out, and you’ve got one hell of a song, a piercing and bold and straightforwardly honest piece of sincerity.

As with Wes Harding’s work, it’s that cracked-chest, open-veined sentiment you really respond to here. When Poulin broods in “Sour” that “you think I taste sour, but no one’s as sour as you,” it is less bitter than matter-of-fact, and when he notes in “Old Gun Shot” that, “I want to take you out with one old gun shot to the brain/ Because I love you,” it really does seem affectionate, with the “because” clipped and cut short like he doesn’t want to admit it.

That latter song is taken Uncle Tupelo by McKay Belk’s steel guitar, a cry that doesn’t become cloying thanks to a big-room sound. The backing vocals, too, sound more than a few steps away, like the band are aping the song’s central characters, keeping each other at a distance.

With so much contemporary production focusing on immediacy and loudness, this record stands out for its openness and space. It’s plenty warm, and the various instruments are present and fully realized (except maybe for Grosso’s bass from time to time – it could be higher in the mix), but you never feel claustrophobic in the headphones. That helps the relatively rare big choruses here standout, as in “Insane,” where the jangledy pop comes through in bouncing guitar notes and extra backing vocals the second time around, where “know” has three syllables and Poulin’s voice tends to crack with rawness: “We’re all insane, you know.”

It’s not hardly a question, and the way he delivers “insane” is with all the emphasis on the “in” so it almost seems more inclusive than accusatory.

The whole thing is remarkably accessible, even when it gets loud in “Lights Out,” and even with slightly sketchy overtures. Whether imploring the listener to “beat the shit out of me” or insisting “I don’t know how to feel,” right before asking that you “die for me,” Poulin is often working some dark angle, but he never lays the nostalgia on too thick or gets overly maudlin.

Nor does he waste your time. These are songs that deserve to go past four minutes and continue to feel fresh even when the words are washing over you for what seems like the twentieth time.

Really, the biggest flaw might be that there’s not enough here. Over already? I was just getting into it. Perhaps there’s more material hot on its heels.