“I see it there in my mind, but I never say it in time,” Max Clarke sings on “Don’t Fade Out” from the new Cut Worms album, before the track in fact, fades out. I know, man, I’ve been there. Haven’t most of us? What Clarke is singing about on “Cut Worms” are the universal themes of love, loss and trying to break out our internal monologues into the listening world. Don’t you wish you could have brought yourself to speak to that girl in the elevator, or that guy at the party? Don’t you wish you could stop the world from spinning into more insanity? This record has those recurrent themes of trying to be bold in the face of anxiety or embarrassment, or swimming against a worldwide tide.
The record builds on the formula of Clarke’s previous work; this batch is just as fully fleshed out with comparatively elaborate arrangements and backing instrumentation, but there are fewer solos, bells and whistles, and instrumental parts. Touchstones for Clarke are clearly fifties and sixties early rock—he’s like one Everly Brother or Jan and not Dean, and although he is clearly a tenor, he is also inspired by the Phil Spector-shepherded girl groups. All that’s missing are the “doobie-doobie-doos” and the “sha-la-las” and you’re in “Baby It’s You” territory. There are some “oohs” here, but no doo-wop moments such as those that cropped up in Clarke’s earlier material. Cut Worms are as if the Beatles never did drugs, or at least never discovered feedback—his inspirations stop at “Rubber Soul” and don’t go any further.
The songs are solid, Clarke’s voice is expressive and tastefully echo-laden, and he never overreaches or sounds whiny. It’s as if Cut Worms know their formula and see nothing wrong with it, so why mess with it?
On “Take It and Smile,” Clarke again expresses such extensive self-doubt, it’s a wonder he had the gumption to get a record out, much less one as uniformly wonderful as this. On the bridge, he sings “I get so sick with rage / At what’s being done / It doesn’t help me to know / I’m not the only one,” so it’s clearly no comfort to know he’s not the only one who feels this way. He continues “I can’t believe in nothin’ / That I tell myself / I can’t rely on the promise that it / All will be well.” If the narrator is to be taken at face value, it’s a wonder that this amount of “self-doubt” isn’t coupled with “crippling” in this context. Yet if we consider the song not from the personal perspective but from the political, a close analysis reveals it may be a critique of the state of the world in the twenty-first century, the post-pandemic world. Clarke complains about the “same old talk from the mind hive” and the “squalid mess” of the world. He bemoans “All the blind hatred so vile” and concludes that despite “All the pain” we’re meant to “just take it and smile.” He goes on to wish “that there was something / I could say or do / Doesn’t feel any better / Just to know it’s true.”
Following that later with a title like “I’ll Never Make It” might induce a cringe, but if one looks past the title, it’s about how he can’t make it without his love, a theme he explores again in the meek and modest but affecting “Is It Magic?”
The shuffling “Ballad of the Texas King” supplies a Western moment with some lovely twangy guitar that sounds like pedal steel or lap steel and the jazzy piano (Rick Spataro of Florist fame contributes both). The bouncy self-described ballad disguises some dark themes hinging on death in the desert with alarming specificity.
A real rocker here is “Let’s Go Out On The Town,” an entreaty to do more than just sit around and “keep them dancing all night long.” It could be a less muscular version of Redd Kross’ “Stay Away from Downtown” and is almost on a par with Petula Clark’s “Downtown.”
A newfound fall anthem is “Living Inside,” describing the leaves changing colors and the bus trip back to school, but he can’t bring himself to talk to the girl of his affection, singing “but it’s only wishful thinking / and it’s all in my mind” and “but my confidence comes and goes like my sometimes friend / and I never know if I see him again.” The narrator has these feelings “living inside” of your love, he sings, but they are really in his head. Again, it’s the internal monologue, struggling to burst out, past his censorious shyness. The struggle is part-and-parcel with Clarke’s identity crisis, as he is “Lookin’ for somebody I could be / Watchin’ all ‘em pass in front of me.”
On the flipside, if and when the love of Cut Worms could be shared, “Use Your Love! (Right Now)” is a mellow appeal to use your love while you have it, to fight against the malaise and ennui of day-to-day existence.
The concluding cut, “Too Bad,” like many of the cuts on “Cut Worms,” could easily be a single, with the way it builds to dramatic, anthemic, string-laden choruses. Again, lyrically, he’s singing about the difficulty of expressing oneself: “Something’s eating at my mind / That I’m doing my best not to say.”
Throughout the record, the Brooklyn-based Max Clarke does the lion’s share, being a one-man band, singing all the vocals, supplying guitars and keyboards (as well as bass). Noah Bond drums, some of the bass duties are farmed out (to Keven Louis Lareau and Michael D’Addario) and some supplemental piano is supplied by John Andrews, Brian D’Addario and the aforementioned Spataro, but otherwise, this is Clarke’s show as Cut Worms. Bond, Andrews, and Lareau are part of the longstanding Cut Worms live band, whereas the D’Addario brothers hail from the likeminded act The Lemon Twigs. But Clarke writes all of the songs, produced and mixed the record, and was responsible for crafting the impressive arrangements.
His previous record, 2020’s “Nobody Lives Here Anymore” was an expansive double LP, but for “Cut Worms” he limited himself to just these nine tracks. Clarke challenged himself to cut extraneous detail and hang on to the essentials of what makes a song stronger. “How much can I say and give in a limited amount of time?,” he asked himself during the writing process. Aside from making the listener want more than just nine songs, in many ways, he succeeds in hanging his hat on those essentials. Even though the backing arrangements are well done, they never distract from the essence of the songs, and those songs never overstay their welcome.
No matter how you slice Cut Worms, their earworms are indelible. The songs are hard to shake once they have been given a single spin, and repeated spins reveal additional depth to what on the surface seem like such simple songs.
Cut Worms perform live at The Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 North Lincoln on Wednesday, October 4 at 8pm.
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.