A fairly new trio from the Bath area, Max Ater & The Marshalls have successfully started to make waves in their hometown and are hoping to extend their reach with a few shows in Portland in the coming weeks and festival gigs throughout the summer. Having just recently won the Young & Free Maine Sound Off Competition, they’ve also scored a spot for the Old Port Festival as well as some recording time in Bangor. Additionally, their single, “Naturally,” will be WCLZ’s Free Download of the Week starting April 18.
For a band that has only been playing together over six months, it sure looks like these guys are on the right track to getting their music to the largest audience possible as soon as they can.
Their home-recorded, self-titled EP is a nice introduction to the band while also illuminating how much room there is to grow. Ater is a strong songwriter in an adult-alternative vein as well as being a fine piano player, bringing to mind artists like The Fray and Marc Cohn, the latter whom they have already covered. His voice is pleasantly gruff; the type you would hear fade in on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy but in a positive way – the sort of voice you might Shazam in that particular situation. The rhythm section is made up of Dave and Alex Marshall who provide appropriate accompaniment with lighter, jazzy basslines and drums. There’s a nice playful element to their playing that will be great to hear with higher production values.
Perhaps because they were tracked this way or due to the homemade factor, the recordings have a live feel to them. Though the writing in “Naturally” comes across, it does feel like the performances are a little rushed as well as some room noise being present. If the band’s sound wasn’t so polished, this wouldn’t be as noticeable, or matter as much, but the arrangements demand a bit more gloss. “One With You” finds a nice groove and would benefit from an extra punch in the form of some synth or strings once the chorus kicks in. It’s likely these guys are already thinking about this stuff but if they’re not, the songs are asking for it, little flourishes that will really drive the emotion home. “Paper Planes” and “Soldier On” both offer some impressive vocal moments but aside from “Naturally” and the jump in “She Knows,” there is a tendency to hang around the same tempo and feel which makes the middle selection of songs blend together and the need for differentiation that much greater. The writing and performances are good enough that this will suffice as an example of what Ater and company are capable of, but these recordings act more like a demo (which is probably what this EP is intended as) rather than a final, finished product.
Which isn’t to say that they should get lost in schmaltzy details and accoutrements. The genre they are dabbling in can sound extremely cloying when done the wrong way – or to some, when done at all. But there is a sincerity to the five songs here that make me believe that the band is just that. This is the kind of music they want to be making and probably listen to on their own time. There is a welcome vulnerability to their sound that is at odds with a majority of active bands and makes me wonder how they’ll be accepted with more cynical Portland audiences. I can’t imagine these guys playing the bar scene and connecting with the usual loud talkers or arm crossers that attend. Having played to a packed crowd at the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor in February, I’m under the impression they’re shooting for more of the sit-down, clap politely and stay attentive type.
There is an audience for Max Ater & The Marshalls, though, and they’ve already got 3,000-plus Facebook likes to prove it. A few weeks ago, the trio performed at a Sofar Sounds event with Amy Allen and that’s the sort of match-up that makes sense for them at this point. While there may not be anything edgy or groundbreaking going on, there’s some solid playing, solid songwriting, it sounds good, and sometimes that’s all some people want. I’m hoping that Ater is able to hone in on a more defined personality on record, something that really sets him apart as the guy behind these songs beyond having an extremely pleasant voice and good piano skills. I’m also looking forward to seeing what sort of energy the Marshalls have in a live setting, if there’s more life that they have to offer beyond what’s exhibited in these recordings. There’s some real promise here so it will be interesting to see what sort of trajectory these three gentlemen take.
Max Ater & The Marshalls perform as part of The Patio Presents, April 10 at Blue with Logan Burns and Ben Wilson.
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