The specter of dcTalk always looms over the work of its now-solo members but Kevin Max is content to frolic in its ever-present shadow. Starry Eyes Surprise, Max’s 7th full-length album, is the latest in a body of highly eclectic solo work – a record that’s both quintessentially Kevin Max and yet unlike anything he’s done before.
Fans who lust for the rock n’ roll histrionics of The Imposter and Between the Fence & the Universe might not be sated. Starry Eyes Surprise is such a beeline in the opposite direction. It’s basically a jazz cover record. A quite often brilliant jazz cover record.
Max wastes no time in setting the mood with his take on Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, starting with some swampy bass and his trademark shimmering vocals. It then kicks into an almost James Bondian groove, with ghostly background vocals, dangerous poetry, and a sultry dashing of Michael Tait thrown in for good measure.
“True love is an art form; temptation is its partner,” Max intones over dark bass and nimble drums. “When I spin you around the labyrinthine gardens, we laugh at all life’s problems.”
This is the unmistakable adventure Kevin max has embarked on – a jazz cover album, devoid of crunchy rhythm guitar and dive-bomb vocals. But don’t let that fool you. It’s a Kevin Max jazz album, which is to say, it’s not your father’s idea of a relaxed evening with a glass of scotch and Sinatra in the background. Unless your father is from Transylvania and he likes his scotch tinted with dark alien blood.
I don’t reference Dracula sipping otherworldly alcohol for nothing. Moon Over Bourbon Street, written by Sting and inspired by the book Interview with the Vampire, conjured this vision quite easily. Whereas Sting’s original had a jovial spring to it, the Starry Eyes version opens with a dour bass synth and strains of church organ as if the Count himself were behind the keys. Max, in a slightly affected accent, sings about following “the bright lights, the people, and the moon and all” and we’re right there with him, in some distant cobblestoned metropolis, stalking an unknown, maddening crowd.
Strangers in the Night plays like the love child of Frank Sinatra and French electronic duo Air. The throbbing bass line and space rock atmospherics would normally be a fine playground for Max’s whimsical vocals but he croons into the cosmos with remarkable restraint. “Lovers at first sight, in love forever, it turned out so right for strangers in the night,” he sings yet not without a sense of loss. Perhaps these strangers ultimately drifted apart? An aching saxophone solo would seem to agree.
Then we take a detour. When You Wish Upon A Star is a long way from Pinocchio. Instead, we’re led through a rainforest of sounds, hypnotized by soft tribal beats and the overtures of an unseen snake-charmer. The song is jarring – Kevin’s vocals seem out of place against the forbidding dreamscape of sounds. It’s as if the sky is black and there is no star to wish upon, only a jungle fever from which to wake up.
And yet it all seems apropos. Kevin Max, in paying tribute to his childhood musical influences, is summoning the night. “I had to narrow the choices down to a minimalist fraction,” he notes on his Pledge Music page. “I felt that it had to involve a subject. That subject became the night. Nighttime… the mysterious hours of darkness, of which many of us lie awake contemplating our lives, or dive headlong into the mystery by becoming a bonafide night owl or club kid.”
Says Max: “The songs themselves are important, but just as important are the moods in which they were recorded. I wanted to create a sound universe where one could either drift off with headphones or sit awake contemplating the lyric.”
Which is apt. Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me, an art-house Smiths cover that spans 13 minutes, will either leave you breathless or scratching your head (or both). By contrast, Under The Milky Way, originally by The Church, is perhaps the most straight-up and accessible jazz tune on the album. It’s spirited and moving. But if you “drift off with headphones”, you can almost see Judge Dredd emerging from a neon-sign dystopian speakeasy, cracking heads while Kevin Max comfortably serenades half-humans and transient astronauts.
Speaking of astronauts, the album ends with Moon River and K-Max finally leaves earth for outer space. Objects float. Stars align. Max sings beneath his helmet, watching the earth on his monitor slowly fade into a distant dot. “Two drifters, off to see the world, there’s such a lot of world to see,” he sings and for a minute, you’re in the cockpit with the one of the world’s most talented singers, unbuckling your seatbelt to free-float and scrutinize the universe.
Starry Eyes Surprise has its peaks and dips. But the journey is the reward. It’s scary. It’s self-assured. It’s inner cosmos jazz acid soup for the soul.