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Maxwell James may hail from Wales but he brandishes an American musical heart no less earnest than any other Nashville hopeful. His debut EP weaves the familiar threads of classic Americana – blues, country, a touch of rock – with, for better or worse, an overarching pop-orientation that both breathes life into the EP and limits its scope.
First things first: Maxwell’s vocals are captivating start to finish – it’s one of those rare instances where a voice with a nasal overtone actually blends well. Never grating, brim with character, and markedly softer than what you’d expect, it’s a welcome alternative to the booming baritone of Hozier or Nathaniel Rateliff. Nonetheless, the ambition on some of this EP’s choruses can fall short due to the limitations of Maxwell’s vocal power. Even with the charge of the backing vocals on “Feed My Evolution”, and “The More You Say, The Less I Know”, the impact of the melody feels a little blunted. It’s shy of the towering drama that some of his soulful contemporaries can achieve, but credit where credit is due: the arrangement is still enticing.
“Blatantly” is a standout track that has a strong Lindsey Buckingham air, especially with the silky double tracked vocals and guitars. Intimate, sweet, and unpretentious in the best possible way. Conversely, EP closer, “When It’s Real”, is the weakest of the lot, suffering from bland, unmemorable lyrics and chord progressions and bizarre, Christmas-themed keys that don’t feel at home.
On the positive side, one of Maxwell James’ greatest talents is his knack for constructing songs with vibrant personalities out of incredibly simple hooks. Album opener, “Roll Down Your Window Slowly”, is carried by a riff that’s as simplistic as you could imagine, but the arrangement builds and builds as decorative slide guitar leads and rolling vocal lines put meat on the tune’s bones.
Circling outward from a central, humble idea is the basis of every song on the EP. As impressive as building around a loop is, there’s a lack of imagination after a certain point as the songs never venture too far from home. Maxwell is a great pop writer, he knows how to direct dynamics and instrumentation at each and every part, but the trope grows old after repeated listens. Future releases would do well with a more adventurous and idiosyncratic approach, as this EP plays it safe from start to finish.