Welcome to Maple Mars is a fine introduction to Rick Hromadka's prodigious and multi-varied talents as skillful songwriter and musician. The album started off as a Hromadka solo project in the summer of 2000, shortly after he'd dissolved his previous band, Double Naught Spies. Hromadka was by then ready to move on and ready to stretch out as a composer, knowing that Double Naught Spies weren't likely ready to make the same journey with him. And so he went, performing intimate shows in L.A., often playing just piano (although this multi-instrumentalist is adeptly talented on just about every instrument you can think of). This period of self-discovery led to him taking giants steps forward from his previous efforts -- the proof is this album, actually. Still, Hromadka missed the kinetic energy of having a live band with him on-stage and in the studio, which led him to invite a few of his friends to join him on this adventure, including drummers Mike Fletcher (credited as the only other member of Maple Mars here, although Hromadka has since assembled a full group) and Steve Berns, guitarist Phil Rosenthal (Twenty Cent Crush), and multi-instrumentalist Rick Gallego (Cloud Eleven). The opening track, "Welcome to Maple Mars," is a fine introduction and begins with a Sgt. Pepper-y crowd-noise intro before launching into a barre-chorded power surge of swirling guitars and hummable melodies. "I Thought I Knew You Well" is an excellent guitar jag, with warm-chorus harmonies that trade off with aspic-tinged verses. Gallego guests on the semi-psych pop "Fly," a high note with the album's hookiest chorus, and "Afterglow," a rich, head-bobbing soft rock explosion (it may remind some fans of his band, Cloud Eleven, at least in spirit). The sublime "Silver Spy Satellite" ambles on a loping acoustic guitar and percussion beat (it's similar to America's ghostly "Horse With No Name"), but there's a sleepy-eyed slide guitar that sells the tune. The album ends with "Wonderwalla"'s carnival-esque intro, leading into a moody organ outro, then a few seconds pass before a minute-long Monkees-esque hidden track slips in under the wire. The only negative comment overall is that a few of the songs tend to go on a bit too long after they've made their main point, but this is a minor complaint and shouldn't deter fans from seeking out this outstanding (and deep) pop wonder. -AMG
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