In Brief: A weird album with a daunting learning curve and some bizarre detours, but one that I appreciate for bucking expectations of the kind of music/art that Christians should make.
How many records does a solo artist have to record, after the group he became famous as a member of breaks up, before the music-buying public starts to take him seriously as an artist? For Kevin Max, that answer seems to be “infinity”. Despite being the most prolific third of the vocal triumvirate that was dc Talk, his solo work has gone from a slight detour to a headlong tumble straight down the rabbit hole in the eyes of most of the group’s fans. What once was a mild curiosity to a horde of Christian music fans more suited for the poppy hybrid hip-hop of Toby Mac and the straight-up rock-and roll of Michael Tait than Kevin’s shape-shifting and sometimes sinister brand of art rock seems to become something that evades their understanding or even their brief attention with every new release. While Toby’s riding high on hits from his four solo albums (and whatever live recordings, remixes, and other repackaging of the same songs the public decides to devour in between), and Tait’s rebooted his career as the new lead singer of the Newsboys after his eponymous band Tait put out one solid album, one so-so one, and got stopped cold in its tracks before a third even materialized, Kevin seems to toil tirelessly in relative obscurity, with his former label dropping him after the meager sales of his solo debut Stereotype Be, and Kevin playing the vagrant from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Nashville and finally back to his native Grand Rapids, Michigan, bouncing around between almost as many indie labels in the process. He always seems to be tinkering with something, as evidenced by a smattering of EPs, a holiday album, and a Gospel album that all showed up between the expected full-length album releases. So while 2010’s Cotes d’Armor (True Rebels) is only his third full-length collection of original songs, I’d say he’s probably outdone his former bandmates in terms of the sheer amount of content he’s turned out – most of which is worth hearing, but which has gone summarily ignored by an audience unknowingly plotting out the death of art.
But let’s be fair to the audience for just a minute. Kevin Max was known as “the weird one” even when he was in dc Talk – his golden vibrato often reaching for strange notes and putting odd punctuations on lines from beloved songs in concert that kept young fans like me guessing as to how exactly one was supposed to sing along. His creative persona interjected itself more and more (as did Tait’s), leading to what I feel was the group’s most fully-realized record, Supernatural, before they launched their solo careers and said what we assumed was a temporary goodbye after a final tour in 2002. I fully expected, upon hearing that all three were going solo, that Kevin’s work would go way over my head, so I was quite surprised to discover so much of myself as Kevin explored his inner freak on Stereotype Be. That record tackled, or at least hinted at, some dark experiences in Kevin’s past, and while it wasn’t shy about his faith, there was a fair amount of “What the heck’s he singing about?” going on throughout that record. So I can understand why an audience more adjusted to keeping up appearances and not leaving uncomfortable questions hanging in the air might not have liked that record. And criticisms that Kevin was trying a little too hard to channel either John Lennon or Sting on several songs weren’t entirely unfair. So Kevin went the indie route, having to come up with some new material to release in a hurry after Forefront Records pulled the jerk move of refusing to let him sell his own first album at his concerts. I grabbed the chance to see Kevin live whenever I could in those days, since he hung around L.A. and would play anywhere from churches to clubs to cafes. I made peace with his audience being drastically downsized. I figured the attention of the folks who didn’t get it would just drag him back into controversy (especially after his divorce circa 2003 and subsequent second marriage – that raised a few eyebrows, but not nearly as many as it would have in the dc Talk days). I met the guy briefly after a show, and encouraged him to keep on being a freak for the sake of those of us who were trying to approach our faith intelligently while not having our personality eradicated by churchy group-think in the process. (I didn’t articulate it nearly as well to him as I did to myself just now. But I’m sure it’s not like the idea would have been anything new to him anyway.)
And I’ll be honest – I even gave up on Kevin for a while there. The Christmas album seemed to play it way too straight compared to what I expected from Kevin, the Gospel album was just a big handful of NO KEVIN, THAT DOESN’T WORK, and the first glimpse of new material in a while – 2008’s Crashing Gates EP – struck my ears as a dull disaster at first, a weak attempt to return to the quirky poetic rock & roll that he’d done so well on Stereotype Be and The Imposter. So it’s ironic that it took what is essentially a glorified remix record to bring me back into the fold. Kevin recruited Graham Crabb of the UK-based band Pop Will Eat Itself as producer, resulting in a bizarrely electronic and apocalyptic approach that transforms most of Crashing Gates‘ songs for the better. The Lennon and Sting homages, for the most part, are gone, and while Kevin’s work could very well still be a pastiche of mainstream rock and techno artists he admires who aren’t high profile enough for me to recognize, they’ve still got a weirdness to them that is uniquely Kevin. Meandering farther and farther from the cookie-cutter Christian music base has given Kevin more freedom to play with words and ideas, even when they might initially strike a conservative listener as not a terribly conservative thing to say. He hasn’t quite gone as far off the deep end as Sufjan Stevens did on his latest (but then, Sufjan was never part of the Christian music scene to begin with, so we made a bit of a leap there to begin with). “Damned” is about the strongest language you’ll get out of Kevin. But as that oddly hypnotic voice croons about motorbikes and vampires and his own theatrical, campy variation on the End of Days, it’s pretty easy to tell that this isn’t a record aimed at spelling out theological talking points to an audience that wants to cheer at the thought of someone else being force-fed a belief that the faithful have already acknowledged.
A commitment to celebrating your own freaky uniqueness is going to have its downsides, though. Just as I had a hard time stomaching Kevin’s version of Gospel, some folks are going to be absolutely horrified at the thought of an electronically munched-up album of mostly minimal rock and roll songs with a generous smattering of trippy, trance-inducing interludes. This album screamed RIDICULOUS EXCESS! to me the first few times I tried to wade my way through its sixteen tracks. It was only when I started to pick up on the connecting themes and the recurring motifs that made one seemingly non-sequitur piece of music start to make more sense in the greater context, that I started to look past some of the glaring flaws on Cotes d’Armor and fall in love with the overall vision of it. Comparisons to The River Empires (a folk/bluegrass offshoot of Christian rock band Falling Up) – in spirit though definitely not in musical style – would be reasonable to make here. I find myself more and more drawn to music that I can’t fully make sense of at first, and I get most excited for Christians in the music business when I feel that they can express themselves artfully, even if those who judge by sales numbers or statements of doctrine will deem such artists a failure. That’s what puts Cotes d’Armor in the “win” column for me, even though I can tell it’s going to be an extremely tough sell even for those who enjoyed Kevin’s first forays into a solo career.
1. On Yer Bike!
You’re in for a pretty weird ride if this opening track is your first impression of Kevin Max – because the spoken intro, in which he is asked to name his three favorite authors and he responds “Kevin Max, Kevin Max, and… Kevin Max!” would seem positively ego-centric if you didn’t know the guy well enough to know that he likes to poke fun at his own theatrical tendencies from time to time. As for the actual song, which is one hell of a fun rocker with a brash, catchy tune and an ascending guitar riff that just won’t quit, I can’t tell if it’s self-parody or not. He seems to be setting up a caricature of a pampered famous person who makes excuses for their eccentric behavior, and there are a lot of lines thrown in there like “Politics be damned, we’re the children of eighties” and “While you’re smoking marijuana with your thirty diseases” that make it pretty clear he’s not courting the Christian rock audience by a long shot. Which isn’t to say that the phrasing indicates any personal opinions of Kevin’s, other than the fact that he’s having a blast sending up this ridiculous character, and has lost all concern over whether conservative audiences will misinterpret the song as being his real attitude about himself. And lest you forget what a stellar voice this guy has, there’s a vocal breakdown in the middle of the song that’s so sweet, you just have to hear it for yourself.
This brief segue opens with the trance-like sound of Kevin’s backmasked voice, reversing the vocal flourish that capped off the previous song while also hinting at the futuristic theme of the song immediately ahead. I think Kevin would have gotten better results by just letting the tracks bleed into each other, but whatever.
3. Out of the Wild
This is the first of many remixes from the Crashing Gates EP, but I must have not been paying close attention to that EP when it came out, because I completely forgot this song was on it. Looking back, it’s one of that disc’s more satisfying rockers, and its counterpart on the new album is comparatively subdued, mostly replacing a buzzing guitar riff with fuzzy bass and a minimal sort of dance beat. The melody is unchanged, however, making it the catchiest song on either project. Kevin’s vision of a post-apocalyptic word nearing the end of the 21st century is bizarrely fascinating, as nature begins to reclaim the cities and freeways (even if it leads to the terrible pun “Hollywood is covered in vines”), which is a sort of metaphor for America’s greed overtaking it. That greed is personified as a witch, which leads to a highly singable chorus of “Ding-dong, the witch is dead!” The war between Kevin’s pop sensibilities and his eccentric habits has never produced a more amusing result – as much as it may throw me off that he uses the pronunciation of “Los Angeles” that rhymes with “cheese”, there are a number of veiled science fiction references here that dovetail nicely with Kevin’s own unique vision of how the world will end. Let’s just say that if Kevin had come up with this one during his days with the other dc Talkers at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell probably wouldn’t have approved.
4. Walking Through Walls (Just to Get to You)
“Okay, let’s roll boys!” A much more prominent electric guitar leads the charge in this one, bringing Kevin back to more of a live band rock sound, though one in which the synths and programming still play a part. my wife’s ears perked up when she heard the first line of this song, because Kevin is addressing a woman named “Christine”, and well, that’s my wife’s name. I told her that she definitely doesn’t want to be the Christine that he’s talking to here, though. Because this chick is pretty messed up. She’s drifted so far into paranoia and depression that Kevin sees her as a ghost, haunting the empty house that she once lived in. it’s a chilling prospect, but when the percussion drops out and the dramatic strings begin to swell up as he sings “Christine, they’re standing on your grave, trying to comprehend what they couldn’t save”, that’s when you know that stuff just got real. This extends into an odd ambient outro, which seemed tacked on to an otherwise sturdy song at first, but now I understand and appreciate the “ghostly” quality of it.
5. Even When It Hurts
We’re back to the heavy electronic influence here – this one is almost strictly a synthpop tune, since I can’t identify a single analogue instrument amidst all of the programmed keyboard sounds bubbling up out of the speakers. Those who know me know that I don’t consider this to be a terrible thing when what’s being done with the electronics is interesting, and since it’s another exercise in building up from a minimal beat into a layered dance track, it passes the test just fine. Kevin’s offering encouragement to someone who’s feeling like a bit of a misfit – possibly standing on the outside of himself looking in as he says “Everybody doubted everything about you, but you changed into something new.” Shoot, it’s practically this album’s creed. Though subtle, those looking for references to Kevin’s spirituality will find it in the bridge – “I wonder why you crawl/Could you make it past the wall/Can’t you hear the Spirit call?/Come unto me.” (Cross-reference with “What If I Stumble?”, possibly the deepest song dc Talk ever wrote, which contains the line “Everyone’s got to crawl when you know that you’re up against a wall.”)
6. Magadhi Prakrit (Slow)
This slow, repetitive mantra, drenched in waves of guitar reverb, simply repeats “We’ll try to take it slow” again and again. Seems like a waste of time now (and I’ll be honest, it sort of is), but that line becomes significant later. Also, it’s another instance of sampling a piece of a nearby song to create one of these trance-like interludes, which becomes clear as the next song fades in.;
7. Baby, I’m Your Man
You probably weren’t expecting a straight-up love song here. But it’s actually quite well-timed. Though driven by an electric guitar and the soft thumping of a synthesized beat, this one’s actually got a lot of heart to it, with the guitar subdued into a sort of hazy background element, almost as if to give the song a tone of reverence. Kevin might have nicked the opening chord sequence from Sixpence None the Richer‘s “Kiss Me”, but then, I’ve heard similar progressions elsewhere before “Kiss Me”, so let’s just say that some wise progenitor of modern pop music figured out that that series of descending chords is just amazingly romantic. Kevin’s trying to take a haunted woman and build her back up by admitting he’s got his own demons and that he’ll stick by her side as she tries to work it all out – he references “woes of Baudelaire and Poe” and reminds us that he’s a bit of a poetry geek, but for the most part, the song is actually quite straightforward and relatable. It works a lot better than I’d expect for a song with such a corny title.
8. We Love Dangerous
I usually enjoy the electronic deconstruction and reconstruction of pop music. I have a pretty high tolerance for glitchy computer sounds being strung together to just barely hint at a melody where the ear would expect more conventional instruments – I enjoyed a great deal of it in Sufjan Stevens’ latest record and I’m intrigued by the skittering backbeat that opens this song. But my interest goes south as soon as Kevin starts singing, because his voice is drenched in the reverb from hell, making it absolutely painful to listen to. It feels like intentional sabotage – he took what could have been a tragic, show-stealing ballad and subverted it by letting some sort of wave function completely munch up his vocals all the way through the freakin’ song. If I try to look past that and examine the lyrics, I’m impressed at how well he captures the tention between the “live fast, die young” philosophy and the “settle down and grow old” mentality that starts to overtake anyone who survives their more reckless youthful phases. It’s unfortunate that a rather amateurish production choice completely obscures the bittersweet beauty of this one – I wouldn’t mind the vocals getting chopped up and distorted here and there, as if to say that the song was a sort of reflection in a broken mirror, or a fragmented memory or something. But doing that consistently all the way through the song is just plain obnoxious. Sadly, this track is only the second biggest waste of space on the album.
9. Train to Transylvania
This is the album’s first purely instrumental track – there have been a few other interludes, but they’ve contained at least snippets of Kevin’s voice, teasing at other songs. While this one seems to be born out of the same glitchy nightmare that served as the backbeat for “We Love Dangerous”, it’s sped up and turns into a full-on dance track, with futuristic synth notes rising and falling as if we’re passing through magical portals on some sort of interstellar journey. No idea what it means (other than the title being a callback to a line from “On Yer Bike!”), but I enjoy it as an up-tempo segue between two down-tempo songs. It doesn’t overstay its welcome.
10. Future Love Song
Here’s a better example of how to take eerie electronic noises and use them as the backdrop for something cool. This track was featured prominently on Crashing Gates in its original form, which actually sounded a bit plodding to my ears with regular instruments because it was so repetitive (which wasn’t helped by Kevin launching into a long poem at the end of it, which returned for a marathon reprise in a completely different track). The electronic edit thankfully nixes the spoken word stuff and lets the lyrics that Kevin sings take the spotlight, which is a wise choice. He appears to be addressing a messianic sort of figure who was “born to rule the world” – it could be Jesus himself, or it could be an impostor or even a vague, twisted reflection of conventional religion – we’re never quite sure in Kevin’s little apocalyptic fantasy world. The line “But you couldn’t tell the future” is odd when considered in this context – a Christian would consider Christ omniscient, and therefore he would know the future, but does Kevin mean he couldn’t tell us the future? Or is there something more sinister going on – humanity accepting a false prophet as their leader? The song is at once reverent and spooky. The trip-hoppy way that the melody dances about certainly serves to enhance this feeling.
11. Your Beautiful Mind
AGAIN?! Seriously? This is the third recording of this song that Kevin Max has put out. First came the piano-based version on The Imposter, which I’ve come to see as definitive and one of Kevin’s best songs. Then it was redone with acoustic guitar for Crashing Gates as “Your Beautiful Mind 2009”. I figured it was just an alternate take that Kevin threw on there to get the song a little extra attention, since he really believed in it. But I never expected that it would be among the songs remixed for Cotes d’Armor. Now it’s overtaken by the same trip-hop trance that possessed “Future Love Song”, and the acoustic chords have been traded for electric ones, and the strange thing is that within the context of this weird and wonderful little album, it actually works. More than that, it sounds like it could have been written for this album. All along, it’s been a puzzling little song, in which Kevin walks the line between utter faith and devotion, and confusion over why God would create such a beautiful world and yet leave us with hints that he plans to end it so violently. “Future Love Song” makes the perfect companion for it, when taken in that context. I might still consider the original to be the best vocal performance, but I will say that Kevin’s made great strides in terms of taking out the obvious John Lennon-isms and reimagining the song as its own trippy entity.
The opening track from Crashing Gates finally shows up in its remixed form here, discarding its chiming guitar melody completely for more of a machine-like, frenetic rhythm. I think it works. While the original sounded like something that would flaunt Kevin’s stage persona quite well in a live show, that one was loaded down a bit too much with Kevin’s vocal tics to come across as anything other than silly. Here, it’s more focused and purposeful, even if there’s still that little catch at the end of each line that sort of bugs me – “And I’m a fighter and-a! And I’m a loser and-a! And I’m a-stickin’ with you.” (It gets cornier as the song goes on, but in this version, there’s enough techno-wizardry going on to sort of mask the silliness of it.) That repetitive line from “Magadhi Prakrit” – “We”ll try to take it slow” – is finally given context, and the song seems to be about trying to decide whether he and a lover can work it out or whether they need to move on. Which actually seems like rather light subject matter given what came before – but consider the recipient of his last few love songs.
13. Abyssmal (More Than This)
This is essentially “Traveler: The Dub Version”. That song ended with the line “You and I, we stare into the abyss. Is there more than this?”, and this track is apparently trying to depict that abyss, as lonely, rubbery synth sounds skitter about and those last five words get stuck in a repetitive loop. Two minutes of this is a tad long, but it’s not too big of a distraction.
14. Saint of Lonely Hearts
This was the most compact and perhaps the most accessible track on Crashing Gates – it barely clocked in at two minutes, but Kevin seemed to cram a lot into it anyway. Truthfully, it wasn’t one of my favorites there and it isn’t here – something about the flattened way Kevin speaks in response to his own lyrics just sort of weirds me out. (Then again, it is humorous when he gets to the line “Your only friends are people that you own”, only to chime in after that with the comment, “And frankly, they’re under duress.”) I get where he’s going with it – it’s another anthem for the down-and-out, similar to his own “Irish Hymn for the Masses” in content, but sped up to give it a bouncy pop/rock sheen, almost feeling like something you could work out to with the synthpop sheen overlaid in this version. There are some repetitions of the chorus and the main riff that extend this one to nearly three minutes, but it’s still one of the album’s most brief, punctuated tracks. (Given how some of it drags out elsewhere, I should probably be grateful.)
15. Death of CCM (Cybergenic Cyclic Machines)
This one wins the award for “Most Potential Wasted by a Massively Promising Track Title”. I mean, a Christian singer heralding the death of Contemporary Christian Music, how could you not love that or at least be intrigued by it? Turns out Kevin’s got nothing to say on the matter. Hell, this could have been composed by the producer while Kevin was down the street in some coffee shop writing poetry, for all I know. It’s just an insanely repetitive techno rave that goes on for six minutes or so – you think it’s winding up when it starts to get dismantled midway through, but then it gets geared up again for another round of pretty much the same stuff. Over on tvtropes.com, this is what they might call a “Big Lipped Alligator Moment”. To translate for the rest of us: A scene that comes completely out of left field, bears no relevance to the plot, and leaves everyone wondering, “What the hell was that all about?” The fact that it separates the rest of the album from its finale is just cruel and unusual punishment.
16. Unholy Triad
And as finales go, this one’s pretty odd. There’s no closure to our post-apocalyptic storyline that I can see, but instead we get this creepy, idiosyncratic ballad, like something that could have come from the mind of Bjork with its tiny pops and snaps and clicks coming together to comprise a hypnotic syncopated rhythm, as Kevin croons about the world’s unholiest love triangle. Like some of the other relationship songs on this disc, it could be about so much more, but I’m never quite sure. All I know is that he’s putting forth an ultimatum, saying he won’t share his lover with anyone else. It’s a heck of a downer ending, since Kevin seems on the verge of walking out the door when all is said and done, and it’s also a bit abrupt, since the song is kept rather compact and doesn’t give the album any sense of finality. By itself, it’s a fascinating little composition, but I’m left wanting more when its gloomy, minor-key melody falls silent.
I know that I’ve griped about some of the repetitive stuff and a few of the non-sequiturs on this album, but even if you were to yank out all of the instrumentals and transitional pieces, you’d still be left with 11 songs, most of them with sonic and lyrical quirks that are incredibly interesting to listen to and to analyze. So while Cotes d’Armor seems like a daunting thing to listen to on the surface, I think its interconnectedness and its commitment to exploring themes of faith and fidelity on Kevin’s own weird terms should come as a breath of fresh air to perceptive listeners who are tired of either Christian music or mainstream pop music doing the same old thing, and who yearn for something to explore. Maybe Kevin will never live down the association with his old group and the endless questions from clueless so-called “fans” about when they’re going to reunite, but albums like this clearly demonstrate that it isn’t for lack of trying.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
On Yer Bike! $1.50
Out of the Wild $2
Walking Through Walls (Just to Get to You) $2
Even When It Hurts $1
Magadhi Prakrit (Slow) $0
Baby, I’m Your Man $1.50
We Love Dangerous -$.50
Train to Transylvania $.50
Future Love Song $1.50
Your Beautiful Mind $1.50
Abyssmal (More Than This) $0
Saint of Lonely Hearts $.50
Death of CCM (Cybergenic Cyclic Machines) -$.50
Unholy Triad $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.