Max Highstein

Stars

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Having recorded a run of successful "guided meditation" albums -- where the music was keyed to heal certain parts of the human body -- Max Highstein turns to more conventional new age pursuits with Stars. Like any composer in the genre, Highstein's ultimate goal is to express tranquility through melody. But Stars is unique in that more than half of its arrangements range more toward pop and contemporary instrumental sensibilities as opposed to the drifting, gauzy soundscapes so common to "relaxing" new age albums. "Leaving Without My Hat" flits along on an almost Bardic melody, only to be joined by jaunty percussion that suggests the Baroque pop of '60s-types like the Left Banke or even Petula Clark. Of course, Highstein's music is entirely instrumental. But that makes the emotion inherent in the plaintive chording of "Bittersweet Reflection" all the more powerful. Throughout Stars, Highstein's keyboard work is augmented by warm touches of oboe, cello, violin, and flute; each of these instruments make strong showings in the album's highly melodic first half, but also contribute to the introspection of its extended finale. While "Elephant's Dream" is a quintessential rainy day mood piece typical of any new age album, Highstein falters with the ambitious two-part opus "Healer's Touch." Leaning heavily on lingering piano phrases and sustained cello notes, the piece does little with its extended length and feels a bit forced. He's much more successful with "Quartet," which draws on the regimented pacing of chamber music for its inspiration. Violin, flute, and cello all join with Highstein's piano in a stirring melody that's as mournful as it is hopeful. Stars might fade a bit in its midsection, but its deft mix of pop melody with joyous tranquility further establishes Max Highstein's promising musical voice.

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