Max Clarke, the musician behind Cut Worms, first caught my attention with his 2017 ep Alien Sunset. His solid songwriting and rough charm left more than one of his songs lingering in my mind months after I listened to the project. I was excited to hear what would come next, and my anticipation was only compounded when I learned that Jonathan Rado, who did a fantastic job producing the Lemon Twigs’ debut album, would be lending his talent as a producer to Cut Worm’s debut album.
Hollow Ground is warm nostalgia and earnest love wrapped in a blanket and tucked in together. Almost every song deals with love in some capacity, whether the lyrics address fantasies of love, unrequited love, lost love, blossoming love, or blissful love. The honest and relatable story-telling on Hollow Ground is where Clarke really shines; there are countless moments that evoke bittersweet feelings and states of being, the way looking through an old album of photographs does. Even the vocal harmonies and arrangements feel old and familiar, recalling early Beatles songs and soulful doo-wop.
Two songs from Alien Sunset, “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” and “Like Going Down Sideways,” return on Hollow Ground, but not without some changes. The vocal harmonies have been reworked to sound richer and more full. The rough demo-quality of the original tracks has been smoothed out and cleaned up, but not overdone to the point of being totally sanitized of their spirit.
While the changes to “Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” were more subtle, “Like Going Down Sideways” received the most significant improvements. The bass, which was overpowering in the original version, has been toned down, and the guitar part was doubled into two guitar parts providing some counterpoint melodies to each other. This reorganization of the instrumentation allows for Clarke’s singing to come through better. He takes this opportunity to add some nice shaping to the dynamic structure of the track, starting out softer and building into a satisfying high-point in the chorus.
Clarke’s vocals come into their own on this album. In the past, his rough voice garnered comparisons to the likes of Brooks Nielsen of The Growlers, but here Clarke displays a powerful vulnerability in his voice that is more unique to him. On “Cash for Gold,” his voice cracks display frustration and anguish, and on “Hanging Your Picture Up to Dry” he adds a touch of heart-broken country twang.
“Cash for Gold” is one of the highlights of the album. It’s a certified head-bopper complete with bright guitars, a playful premise, warm backup singers, and a catchy hook. I love how the structure teases the chorus with a pre chorus before going back into another verse. This makes the chorus hit much harder when it finally arrives with its lyrics that beg you to sing along.
“Hanging Your Picture Up to Dry” tips its hat to classic country music and the likes of Hank Williams with the descending guitar line that opens the song. The song paints a simple but affecting picture of someone crying over a picture of a lost lover. The lyrics capture the feeling of hopelessness that accompanies a broken heart with the line, “Maybe by the time its dry I’ll learn to start anew / or maybe I’ll just lay down and die.” It may be overdramatic, but it’s not far from how losing someone can feel.
With Hollow Ground, Max Clarke has established himself as a songwriter and lyricist that demands attention. He now has a very strong debut album under his belt and he has shown enormous growth in just the past year, which is not an easy task. That being said, I wonder where he will go with his next release. His sound is very particular, which makes me doubt whether I wouldn’t tire from more of the same. Until then, I am more than happy to pour over these tales of love and life again and again.