Exploring the countryside with Max García Conover

Take to the trees
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  February 1, 2012

There are so many guys with guitars nowadays. Though that's probably been true since Bob Dylan popped, it's a lot easier for them now to put out CDs and post videos and promote shows. What separates the guy who takes his slot at the Dogfish open mic to do Neil Young and Grateful Dead covers before playing a middling original from someone to whom you need to pay attention?

Vocals, charisma, a turn of phrase, actual above-average ability on that guitar? Some combination of that, clearly. Sometimes something it's hard to put your finger on. Ray LaMontagne, Micah Blue Smaldone, Jacob Augustine, Moses Atwood, Samuel James, a handful of others — the list of local guys with guitars who can grab your attention without any other window-dressing is a pretty short one.

Max García Conover is making a strong pitch for joining that select group. His debut EP #1 last year was intimate and striking and the follow-up EP, Birches Lo, offers more of the same, though with Jonathan Wyman turning the knobs this time around. These six songs feature vocals even more immediate and arresting, even if it is sometimes like looking at someone's face with a magnifying glass. Flaws are hard to miss.

But with Conover, there are few to distract you. In large part, these aren't rambling folk crooners, but songs that ripple with energy and earnestness. They're poetic and portrait-like, with lots of words that twist about (he's no Sting, that's for sure), but that only sometimes are narrative and don't fall into the common "you and I" love-song structure of so many young songwriters.

He's more likely to address trees and structures and landscapes than unrequited lovers. "Thatch House" has a playful blues construction with finger-picking full of percussive pops on his guitar's harmonics, and is probably the most dramatic of the bunch, with Conover noting "death does weigh heavy on me," moving from growling, back-of-the-throat delivery to playful and whispery. He avoids melodrama with crisp turns of phrase like "I've been building a storm in my gut" (as good a metaphor for nervousness as I've heard lately) and "soak me down, take me in, sweep me up."

Even when the sentiments are familiar, his descriptions of them are often unique. This song and a couple others could be maybe 30 seconds shorter, since the guitar line is so repetitive and causes the song to run together a bit, but you probably only notice that when you've got the headphones on and are listening intently. As background music for a read of the Sunday paper on a cold morning with a coffee, it doesn't get much better.

"Among the White Birches" is an important change-up, though, with bookends of fingerstyle playing surrounding a central portion supported by a straighter strum. Some might find the tree personification a touch new-agey, what with the "feet as firewood" and "my roots could run with rain," but it's very nicely executed and the surprise 30 seconds of picking at the finish is impressively played.

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  Topics: CD Reviews , Bob Dylan, Ray LaMontagne, Samuel James,  More more >
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