With Arkansas Summer’s ten baroque pop gems, Chris Maxwell picks up a thread that had gotten tangled and almost lost when the Little Rock-based songwriter and ace guitarist left home for New York City in the early ‘90s. This new collection of character studies, confessions, impressionistic portraits, and time travels finds the veteran NYC writer and producer reconnecting with his roots musically and personally, bringing to bear all the production mastery acquired in the intervening years.
The principal writer of the Arkansas crunchy guitar pop band the Gunbunnies (signed by Virgin, produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson, hailed extravagantly by the national press), Maxwell arrived in New York shortly after the band had dissolved, a young songwriter of distinction with an album’s worth of new songs to tout. The Gunbunnies had been CMJ’s Undiscovered Artist of the Year and the unofficial buzzband of SXSW. Their Virigin Records debut, Paw Paw Patch, had been described by Rolling Stone as “earthy, literate and melodic.” The L.A. Times raved about the drama and depth of Maxwell’s Southern Gothic songwriting: “Beatles meet Faulkner on ‘E’ St.” “Pop Jewels,” declared Spin.
But within a year, Maxwell had put his next-step solo project on hold because the ‘90s had come calling. He found himself joining forces with bassist and former Lounge Lizard Eric Sanko to form Skeleton Key, an audacious hard rock band that that married the then-blossoming alt rock sound to a trashy, downtown junkyard racket unique to New York. The songs held on for dear life to some semblance of tradition while Maxwell’s nervy, dissonant guitar playing drove the band off the rails. “…Sounds as if the full granite and limestone mass of the Sphinx were being forced through a cramped Tenth Ave. car wash during a mortar attack,” wrote Timothy White in Billboard.
Skeleton Key’s stint on Capital Records produced one notable record, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, and led to years of touring with bands like The Melvins, Helmet, and Jesus Lizard. When Maxwell parted ways with Skeleton Key, he advanced immediately into production, co-writing and sideman work, teaming with Brave Combo’s Phil Hernandez to form the Elegant Too, a long-lasting production team that has worked with Puff Daddy, They Might Be Giants, Iggy Pop, Yoko Ono, and Ray Davies, to name a few. Their first mixing assignment, the debut album by Shivaree, sold over half a million copies worldwide. A relationship that carries through to this day with the recent release of the critically acclaimed album, Weeping Cherry, which Chris and Phil co-wrote and produced.
The idea of a Chris Maxwell solo record has been a long time coming, but the songs are vibrant and new. Arkansas Summer is subtle, brash, dynamic, and sonically adventurous, moving from gritty electro pop to barebones acoustic narratives, Lenonesque piano ballads, and lush roots rockers with expansive musical moves. Maxwell’s fertile imagination, production savvy, and the still-nervy guitar playing are on bold display across Arkansas Summer. But the point here, finally and again, is the songs.