You have to be a little patient with Goodnight Mr. Max. The Grand Rapids, Mich., duo released their debut EP last month, and it can be a bit slow-going at points. But take the time to really dig in, and you’ll find Sleepaway has something great to offer.
Band members Graham Liddell and Blake Morgan have developed a orchestral folk sound, seemingly influenced more by classical chamber music than acoustic folk rock. They layer their well-harmonized vocals with nylon string guitar, classical strings, hand-beat percussion and the occasional horn section. It should be noted that when Goodnight Mr. Max was formed, Liddell and Morgan were attending separate colleges, so they honed their sound online (I can only imagine countless Skype calls allowed them to reach this point).
Their lyrics tackle big questions that they’re comfortable leaving open-ended. “Is it selfish to be lonely?” they ask alongside the delicate finger picking of “Core to This.” The query repeats throughout the song, as if the singers are pondering it out loud, without arriving at an answer.
Sleepaway certainly peaks in the middle, with two tracks — “Blanket of Leaves” and “Shakeawake” — that are the biggest attention-grabbers on the record.
“Blanket of Leaves” is where the band’s chamber music element really shines. The vocal styling takes on the old-fashioned tone of a century-old ballad until a brief pause ushers in a swell of robust backing vocals. The track is noticeably unique among the others on the record, which can cause any casual listener to come back to attention.
The percussive opening measures of “Shakeawake” give way to an elegant string section that accompanies a song about escaping from a dream world. Punctuated by horns and claps, the track reaches its climax with a percussion and vocals-only outro reminiscent of a tribal chant.
Despite the EP’s sleepy bits (no pun intended), Liddell and Morgan have made a sincere first effort and are clearly onto something and should be an exciting pair to watch.