John Maxfield | Hullabalooga (Tantrum Niche)

cd_maxfield.jpgIt’s fun music to kick back and take in, whimsical and yet highly accomplished.







Life is full of surprises. I knew John Maxfield was a gifted musician, but I didn’t know he was a one-man jazz ensemble, or so it appears on Hullabalooga. Well, if that’s what was he out to prove on the more adventurous selections here, then I am convinced. There is some excellent vintage ’70s lounge jazz on this record. It’s fun music to kick back and take in, whimsical and yet highly accomplished. Three tracks deep and nary a guitar is found, supplanted by piano and horns dancing around in-the-pocket drumming and fluidly melodic bass playing. It’s so laid back and effortless it feels just a little indulgent because, unlike more pedestrian lounge music, there’s a vibrancy and energy that gives these lounge jazz tracks zest. That zest keeps it from sounding like dinner music, and makes it feel like a break-beat record cut live with a band pretending they were a DJ.

Then out of nowhere we get a Frank-Zappa-meets-Stevie-Wonder curveball by the name of "Back on the Bus." It’s actually fun and a pretty cool groove, but after the smooth sophistication of "Theme to Hullabalooga," "Tumbling Down" and "I Miss Her," the unbridled eccentricities of some of the elements of "Back on the Bus" knock you off kilter. So when "Total Disaster" follows, it’s even more surreal, ’cause it’s an excellent and very melancholy tune, as energized as all the others but in a different way, feeling like the best kind of understated indie rock, not out of place on Death Cab for Cutie’s former home, Barsuk Records.

Does that prepare you for "Lord Have Mercy," the country rock two-step that follows? Of course not, but it’s an equally energetic performance. It’s a very fun song, full of whimsy, some down-home slide guitar that the Rolling Stones forgot how to put down 25 years ago. The Stones definitely don’t produce anything as blessed out and yet as lively as "Things Were Different," which slips yet another instrument to the mix, harmonica, in a setting I would not have expected, and yet it works perfectly. When the John Maxfield I’d expected all along emerges on "Black and Blue," all the aforementioned diversity undermines my appreciation for his ability to craft solid college rock tunes. The fact that, for the first time on Hullabalooga these kind of songs come in succession is almost a shock, but to close with "So Long," a nice, mellow rock tune, brings the point home that Maxfield is a master of his craft. A musician’s musician, he can do most anything he wants, but at the end of the day he’s a songwriter and that talent shines through no matter what idiom he embraces. To get a greater appreciation of his gift, you have to see how it translates live. B | Willie E. Smith

RIYL: Ben Folds, Michael Penn, Cake

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