Max Sharam: Album Review

Following the critical and commercial success of her "Coma" EP in both alternative and mainstream markets, the direction that Max Sharam was going to travel in with her debut album has been something of a mystery. Noted for her aurally theatrical live performances, Max preceded this album with an unexpectedly commercial follow-up single ("Be Firm"), leaving many to wonder if the pressure of recording an album with commercial radio expectantly looking on was going to soften the musical edge so apparent on the first EP. The answer, as it turns out, is both yes and no. "A Million Year Girl", contained within the best cover design seen in a long time, does make some concessions to the marketplace; but there's a lot more going on than initially meets the ears.

Opening with "Be Firm" and proceeding directly to 'Coma", the album gets off to a hit-based but fairly deceptive start. "Be Firm", suffering from a healthy dose of over-production, is the last thing many expected Max to do, a big, loud pop song tailor-made for drivetime radio. But lurking within are oddities - a jazz-inspired mid-section, for example - that give the song much-needed identity. No such problem with "Coma", with its tale of stalking being aided and abetted by a vocal that carries more threat in its style than the lyrics themselves, and a small helping of opera just for good measure.

From here we're into new territory; "Purple Flower" is lush, warm and elegiac while still managing to be a pop song; the inner core of the song takes a few listens to get inside you, but once it does, it's there for good. This song also benefits from the first of four string arrangements on this record (all arranged by co-producer Daniel Denholm), a string part that for once doesn't follow the rules or the cliches, and instead sounds like a film soundtrack from another time in perfect sync with the song.

Melanie Safka's "Lay Down" is the first of two covers on the album; it's in big'n'loud territory again, but works better than "Be Firm", possibly because its anthemic chorus stands up and demands such treatment. The other cover, "Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?" originally appeared on the soundtrack of the Alan Parker film "Fame" before being grabbed by Max for the original 5-track "Coma" EP; it sounds right at home in its place on the album, a gentle pause for thought and emotion before "Jezu's Jewellery" - and this is where the album departs on the strange journey it has been threatening to until this point. Carefully arranged and dynamic, this song is spectacular enough in its acoustic live form, but with multi-layered vocals and the return of that string section, it's on another planet entirely.

"Huntinground", also from the EP, is all widescreen menace on the surface with a dance song trying to escape from within - Ennio Morricone accidentally strolling onto the stage at a 1982 ABC concert, if you like. "Can I Catch Fire" is the previous song's mirror image, replacing city by night with open country by day. "Alice" appears to be a companion piece to "Purple Flower", both musically and lyrically; an acoustic lament given a few more personalities by Amanda Brown's violin, it proves that delicate and disturbing can be the same thing if you let them. "Learning To Let Go" goes from an intriguing surreal intro into an all-too-short song of self-analysis, while "Raining Angels" might have been a Wim Wenders movie in another life before it became an aural road movie. Finally, "Orchestra Au Naturel" closes the album as a harp-and-strings caress that's breathtaking.

Undeniably Max even when the songs are battling the production, this is a debut album that hides its secrets in the songs themselves, and the trip inside them is well worth it. While a bit more weirdness wouldn't have gone astray, as a career opener, this is more than just a little impressive. (9/10)

Copyright © Anthony Horan ( May 1995