Austin—For someone signed to Atlantic Records, Max Frost still feels a lot like a local artist. His debut EP, Low High Low, couldn’t carry him out from under the shadow of his breakout single, “White Lies.” Add to that the Pentecostal enthusiasm of his hometown audience, the extra helping of love he’s gotten from local radio, and the revelation of our one mutual Facebook friend, and Frost starts to feel like he hasn’t quite made it to a bigger pond. Maybe Atlantic’s roots as a label for African American music is a factor in their bid for the 22-year-old artist, who could have spent more time in the indie incubator; Frost’s source materials are soul, R&B, blues, hip hop, and funk, and he uses them well.
And anyway, local isn’t a bad thing; home field advantage was a strength for the artist and for the audience when Frost performed in Austin at Stubb’s BBQ for an ACL Late Night show. Frost seems like he’s a competent showman anywhere, but it can’t hurt when the audience can shout your lyrics cover-to-cover. The outdoor, cattle-yard sort of enclosure where Stubb’s puts on its shows was stacked almost to the back end. Fans raised paddle-signs reading “Who’s Max Frost?” As a Houston kid I’m very suspicious that this was cribbed from Mike Jones, but the takeaway is clear; they really, really want you to know about this band.
“White Lies” was an obvious crowd favorite, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s a great jam, with a weirdly cranked-down arrangement that lets the song’s solid fundamentals speak for themselves; quiet-but-accented drums, the strummed accompaniment, the bleep-bloop synth melody and barely audible lead guitar, and Frost’s thin falsetto.
If Frost’s EP didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, maybe it’s because “White Lies” isn’t very representative. Frost is a master of the slow jam, and anyone who was prepared for a set full of “White Lies” sound-alikes would have been disappointed.
“Nice And Slow” is—was anybody surprised?—probably the best example of Frost’s core sound. The bass is front and center here. The rhythm is steady, slow and driving, the bass is far forward, the guitars have a wow-wow sound descended from funk, and the synth plays a hazy pad. This song isn’t pure Isaac Hayes though; the minor key gives it a more explicitly carnal atmosphere. “Glow Long” is similar in ambience and instrumentation, but it builds around a synth that hits the eighth notes for the first half of the bar, giving it a go-stop kind of rhythm—more or less giving away the punch-line.
By his own admission though, Frost’s deepest roots are in blues. That shows on “Suspended Animation,” a track that layers a bit of laptop music on top of a more traditional blues track. But it’s nowhere as obvious as on “Sunday Driving.” The song sees the band stepping aside to let Frost do a solo man & guitar piece. It’s got an almost John Mayer-ish feel to it. I’m not the biggest Mayer fan, or generally a fan of the dude+guitar genre, but Frost’s sincerity is well-enough established elsewhere for it to work, on its own terms and as a needed breather in an otherwise pretty hectic set. It also shows him for what he really is. A roots musician writing in an idiom far removed from the music he loves.
Frost’s Stubb’s set wrapped up his 2014 calendar, but he’s got a lot of energy and a year since Low High Low released, so I expect we’ll hear from him soon. Keep an eye out for him; if he’s coming to your city it’s a show worth seeing.