Tabs Out | Hartle Road – MAXX II

Hartle Road – MAXX II

9.30.23 by Zach Mitchell

Midway through The Elephant 6 Recording Co., the documentary focusing on the titular DIY artist collective based out of Louisiana and Georgia, one of the members of Neutral Milk Hotel (or The Gerbils, it starts to all run together at some point) discusses the potlucks the group would host. The gatherings were about more than just food – they were places where loosely employed touring musicians could smoke weed and just talk. Thirty freaks would hang out in someone’s yard, enjoying vegetarian chili and playing each other tapes full of homespun fuzz-folk. The musician in question ascribed the scene’s hypercreativity and intense cross pollination directly to the fact that they had the space for large, uninterrupted gatherings. The geography and cheap rent directly influenced the music itself. “Some records just can’t be made in New York City,” he says, beaming and full of pride.

Hartle Road is a band that couldn’t exist anywhere else on Earth. I say this as someone who has been attending Hartle Road shows (even when they weren’t called Hartle Road) for over a decade now. I actually got a chance to film a Hartle Road set earlier this year, marking the first time I had seen the band since the pandemic. I loved it, but I could sense that the audience was confused. They opened with “Feel Me,” the Feelies-inspired opener on their upcoming record MAXX II (following the precedent set by MAXX, which opens with a Neu! sendup titled “New”). Most expect openers to be tone setters. Attendees expecting a set of propulsive, jangly rock with overdriven bass were probably a little disappointed. The set had some of that, sure, but it was mixed in with songs that sounded like the Viva Las Vegas soundtrack and moody, synthesizer-heavy pieces plucked from 80s crime dramas. The set was 41 minutes long. Right around four of that actually ended up on MAXX II

That’s what’s made Hartle Road such a compelling band over the years. The band is made up of two brothers, their cousin, and their friend that just happens to be one of the greatest guitar players on the planet. The familial trio live together in Columbus, Mississippi. I grew up in Starkville, home of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. These two cities, along with West Point, make up the Golden Triangle. Each city is about 20 minutes from the others and just about nothing happens in any of them. 

Hartle Road is one of anywhere between two and four “alternative” rock bands working in the Golden Triangle at any given time. It’s sad, honestly. There’s always been a smattering of high school and college kids with a genuine interest in independent art, but they’re evenly matched by frat dudes and normal bar patrons. Every show in a real “venue” is filled with a mix of people who want to be inspired and people who wish you hadn’t shown up. There’s just no real money or support for it in the area outside of a handful of bars no one likes playing. Still, there’s been a persistent chip-on-your-shoulder spirit that’s prevailed in creatives beaten down by the Mississippi sun. I was recently interviewed for a lightly embarrassing documentary about my own band’s relationship with playing music in Mississippi and what I learned from it. I could tell that the documentarian was trying to elicit some sort of “you have to work on your chops to keep up with the blues!” type of down-home folk wisdom but all I could tell her was that playing noise rock to swaths of dads and grads walking out of The Blind Pig bar on Ole Miss’ graduation day really toughened me up. That’s a common feeling down here; everyone has a phase where they get bitter about it and then they get creative.

Here’s the loose Hartle Road story up until now – Toby Hartleroad (older brother), Max Hartleroad (younger brother), and Miles Jordan (cousin) start playing music together from a young age. They start an angsty kind of band you’d expect kids to start. They link up with two other guys and start listening to a lot of Springsteen and power pop. They do that for a while, drop the other two guys, pick up Tyler Carter (not related), and start honing in on some sort of vague mix of garage and 60s pop rock. There’s an EP with a Fat Possum subsidiary no one cares about and a 7” with no sleeve and sharpie on the labels. They write songs and scrap them. They morph every time their record collection changes, with krautrock and punk records intermingling with a burgeoning interest in dance music. Calvin Johnson somehow hears them and akes a liking to them. They go on tour with Calvin. They cut a 7” together. They write songs and scrap them. They become a staple of the late 10s Memphis punk scene despite not being punk. MAXX drops and they play songs from MAXX II while promoting it. They write songs and scrap them. They record an entire album as a band called “Zuul” that never sees the light of day (I can verify it exists). They write a “college rock” album and scrap it, though that may have actually just been parts of MAXX II in retrospect. Sometime in there I end up playing two shows with another fucking side band called Sloth, which is a punk band devoted to The Goonies. They’re incredible. The pandemic happens and they hunker down even more in their home. Calvin Johnson swings by to record an entire record with them and it comes out earlier this year. They play confusing music in Memphis that was described to me as “vaguely mariachi.”  Then, finally, MAXX II, recorded in spurts between 2016 and 2020,  releases on K Records.

I have heard more Hartle Road songs than are recorded. A lot more. Especially when you start considering the side bands – Zuul, Sloth, that time I saw Max open for Wreckless Eric (who also has an affinity for the band) and play a set that was just him yelling over the loudest drum machine conceivable, etc. I think this puts me in the prime position to declare that MAXX II is the best selection of songs this band could’ve made for a second record. I’m biased, sure, but I also feel like the expectations were set sky high. MAXX was released in 2016 and seven years is a long time to wait for a follow up. The second Hartle Road album is the stuff of Mississippi indie rock legend. No one knew what the titles of “Rear Projection” and “ICU” even were but we could hum every bar. The fact that it’s here and it rules is tantamount to a blessing.

MAXX II is a sprawling, borderless record. Hartle Road became punk show favorites with tracks like the buoyant “Rear Projection” but calling this a punk record would betray it a bit. MAXX II  doesn’t genre hop as much as it presents small slices of the same artistic mindset. The tracks feel like selections from a record collection without dipping into the dreaded waters of being “record collector rock.” There’s hooks, there’s jams, there’s grooves, and the throughline through all of it is the unwavering DIY spirit that can only come from psychic familial bonds. 

Take the standout single “ICU,” with its circular, sawing guitar riff coalescing around a dance beat. This gives way to a chiming post-punk guitar solo and a mutant disco bassline. The song is over just as it lays all of its ideas out. A less intentioned band would let it linger, but Hartle Road’s entire MO is intention. Their biggest strength across MAXX II  is their ability to keep the listener guessing. Why shouldn’t “ICU” cut to the organ lullabye “Catch the Cradle?” Why shouldn’t “Wall of Moog,” a pop song from another dimension, come right before the Tom Verlaine-esque guitar workout “Real Projection Pt. 2?” I love MAXX enjoyed the attention it paid to more straight forward rockers like “Blank Check” and “Lonely,” but the band’s expanded sonic palette on MAXX II has made the wait worth it. Even the lead vocal duties have shifted around, with Jordan taking on more songs than either of the titular Hartleroads. 

“Hell Hole” sums up a lot of this record. Hartle Road knows how to mix humor and earnestness, and what could be a better place to do that than on a song about how your Mississippi town sucks? This is no pop punk whinefest either;  take it from me, the idea of watching the whole place “burn to the ground”, literally burn, is a relatable fantasy. And remember, this is Hartle Road, so Jordan’s fantasy is accompanied by shrieking synthesizers and an absolutely ripping guitar solo. I had seen this song performed as a borderline comedy routine years ago, an almost cabaret showcase of southern angst and small town loneliness. It comes off as a defeated sigh on MAXX II, complete with the pragmatic plainness of someone who you know really means it.  

MAXX II is not a straightforward record. It’s not even an inviting record. It’s confusing, twisting, and sometimes you can’t tell if you’re the butt of the joke or laughing along with the band. That’s the kind of confrontational, creative spirit you have to foster if you’re going to survive as an artist in Mississippi. It’s the same kind of spirit I saw onstage as the band ripped into song after song that didn’t even show up on this record. It’s the same kind of spirit that I’ve admired for years and am very happy to have as a physical release in my hands. This is not a band that could exist anywhere else, but I’m very glad they exist here in this time and place.

Cassette (and giant floppy round thing) available from the K Records Distro Page