Sons of Maxwell,
The Neighbourhood
(Tim Feswick, 1998)

I'd heard one song by Sons of Maxwell when I ordered The Neighbourhood; a friend had played me "The Lighthouse" very early one morning on a road trip and I was hooked by the end of the first verse. And then I heard the rest of this record and decided that I owe that friend a large number of favours for introducing me to this band.

The songwriting prowess of Dave Carroll (lead/harmony vocals, harmonica) and the vocals he shares with his brother Don (lead/harmony vocals, bodhran, tambourine) form the core of the Sons of Maxwell sound; they are the elements that have made this one of my favourite CDs. Of the ten tracks, eight were penned by Dave; and it is easy to see and hear why he is fast becoming one of Canada's most respected songwriters. He proves himself adept in the use of a variety of musical styles, from the Latin-tinged groove of "Pandora" and the gentle journey of "These Things I Believe" to the foot-tapping fun of "So Many Things" and "Will You Come Home." Both brothers seem to have an innate sense of rhythm and make complex harmonies sound easy to create. There is nothing forced or manufactured about even one note; music obviously comes naturally to both of the Carroll brothers.

There is an impressive list of supporting players on this record, including multi-instrumentalist J.P. Cormier (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar), Stephen Macdonald (classical guitar), Kim Dunn (piano, synthesizer) and John Cumming (trumpet, flugal horn), to name but a few. The addition of so many supporting musicians, if used carelessly, could have spoiled a really good record. In this case, however, the extra instruments create deeper tones for the songs and never overpower the vocals.

There isn't one track on this record that hasn't been on repeat in my CD player at least a few times. Of course, there are those that have been on repeat more often than others.

The catchy title track opens the record with the story of societal disintegration accompanied by an upbeat pop/Latin rhythm that doesn't seem to want to leave my head. The song brings you inside "the neighbourhood" and looks back to a time when we didn't have to lock the doors at night. The tempo of the opening song is maintained through "Will You Come Home," and is given a traditional/Celtic feel in a fabulous cover of Andy M. Stewart's "Queen of Argyle." Don takes over the lead vocal on this one, with a growl in his voice and the love of a beautiful maiden on his mind. I've always loved the sound of a bodhran, and in this case, it keeps the rhythm of the song like the beating of a heart, especially in the final chorus when it alone accompanies the harmony.

Things slow down for "The Lighthouse," a story of the comfort that can be found in the most unlikely of places. The guitar/piano/accordion arrangement is tender and heart-wrenching, but the vocals are the key here. The brothers' voices blend exquisitely, soaring and whispering in turn. This was the first track I heard, it is still my favourite, and it still brings tears to my eyes.

The buoyant pulse of the first three tracks is picked up again in "Pandora," a cautionary tale about a man in over his head. It has a great bass rhythm that is overlaid with horns and guitars to create a seriously danceable tune. The song builds to an almost angry final chorus and fades away as the man convinces himself that running is the only option. The record continues with a radio-friendly pop tune, "So Many Things," and the heartfelt ballad "These Things I Believe."

Track 8 is another highlight -- the ultimate summer party song! "Oceanside Again" makes you want to rant and rave and misbehave, if only for a weekend. The only other cover on the record, the get-up-on-your-feet "And We Danced," also features skillful harmonies -- and it really sounds like they're having fun.

"Prospectors" is the last track on the record, and this haunting historical ballad is the perfect final song for the collection. Dedicated to "all those who, like the prospectors, act on faith in themselves and raw determination", "Prospectors" is a tribute to two men who made history in the Carrolls' hometown of Timmins, Ontario, at the turn of the century. Dave takes on the voice of Ruben D'Aigle, who had claims on, but failed to find, what would become one of the richest gold mines in history. Don joins him for the chorus and takes the lead in the second verse as Sandy McIntyre, a Scottish immigrant who found gold but died in relative poverty.

As the final notes fade, you get the feeling that you've been part of something very special, if only for a short time. That would be my only complaint about this record -- there should be more of it. Until the new record (due out next year) is released, I would urge you to try to catch this band at one of their live shows. Based in Halifax, the brothers spend a fair amount of time on the road. Dave handles all the guitar work when they play live, and Don's percussion is always a lively part of the show; it is a testament to the talents of both brothers that they sound as good live and on their own as they do on this CD. They have energy and charm that are merely hinted at here.

[ by Rachel Jagt ]

Visit their website.