Nostalgic bubblegum pop
Hollow Ground is the debut full-length from Brooklyn-based artist Max Clarke. As Cut Worms, he released the EP Alien Sunset in 2017. On this album, Clarke brings to the table his attention to detail in the production and obvious love for a bygone era. The sound can be easily summed up as the most authentic Beatles tribute band. His tracks have that classic vintage warmth to them and one can imagine the songs coming directly off an old, dusty record. He combines the lo-fi drum sounds with twangy guitars and thin, trebly vocals mixed with a retro style. However, it’s not solely The Beatles that he is lifting from. Drawing a lot of inspiration from late ‘60s pop rock from the Beach Boys to The Kinks, Clarke produces songs that have a clear message and there’s an old-fashioned simplicity to them as well.
Clarke employs the same whiny tenor as a young Beatle Paul or John had in their early career. The only thing he’s missing that would make the resemblance uncanny is a Liverpudlian accent. On the album’s opener, “How Can It Be,” his tight, self-harmonies are quite reminiscent of Lennon/McCartney and he pleases with a sugar-sweet chorus. The lyrics tell an innocent love story, as if he’s aware of some conservatism known in pop music of in his favorite era.
“Coward’s Confidence” captures the retro aesthetic remarkably well. The track is a classic love ballad featuring wonky pianos and warm, passionate vocals. It’s got all the bells and whistles of a Phil Spector production. Clarke’s strong, emotive voice blends in well with the layers of texture. He’s singing about a girl in a very enamored way with lyrics like, “She smiles so serene/I know when I look at her this life is just a dream.”
Elsewhere in the album, “Like Going Down Sideways,” is a long winding ballad full of emotion and heartbreak. His vocals get stronger as the feeling of redemption nears. The production is simplified to just some bells and guitar accompanying his voice. The schoolboy silliness reaches a peak on “Think I Might Be In Love” and the “Sha la las” threaten to take it over the top. “Hanging Your Picture Up To Dry” is insufferable, bluesy twang with some of Clarke’s most banal lyrics. His countrified wailing is too much to endure for a full song.
It’s obvious by the end of the album Cut Worms hasn’t left the Please Please Me or Help era and therefore never matured into something like Sgt. Pepper’s. A fair amount of indie rock artists are influenced by The Beatles and sounds of the late ’60s and even create work that feels set in that musical period, but they always add some modern twist. That key element is what is lacking here and the whole project suffers from it. That being said, it is undeniable that Clarke has mastery of vintage production techniques and the knack for writing a catchy pop song.