matthewewhite

An early big 2013 hype in the alternative hipster universe comes from a man giving off the aura that says ‘Don’t make me famous, I don’t need it. But if you must…’ Contrived? Only in so much as this album appeared last year on Hometapes/Spacebomb or Spacebomb/Hometapes depending on where you look, took a few by surprise and then suspiciously disappeared from my radar presumably so that Domino can reissue it in the UK this year. Neat move for an ‘indie’ label, but they have always been a bit corporate in their behaviour like demanding that The Fall improve the quality of their one Domino album. The nerve!

The album has been described in rather hallowed terms already and as a true original despite the fact that this has been done many times before. That is not to say that it is not welcome when it happens as, when a group nails the classic cosmic American album in contemporary times, it can still be lauded and applauded like Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ or Plush’s much delayed ‘Fed’ for a more similarly soulful vision. They sound warm and familiar from the off but they also sound unlike any particular contemporary style that they can be definitively filed under. Instead they have nostalgic production values and definite links with the past through a guest appearance or even just a familiar riff or style. This album has the same timeless quality. However, the hype creates suspicion. It seems unfounded but may also point to a lack of real inspirational music these days with tunes and stuff. Last year was a great year for very good music but it was not a good year for very great music. In reappearing at the start of this year, it seems that music critics have almost tacitly agreed that this was the classic that got missed last year. However, this is an album featuring seven songs and no filler. It was recorded in a week but clearly grew organically prior to that. The listener doesn’t walk away with a vague impression of a sound that is cool, a fault that seemed to me to be the weakness in last year’s albums from The XX, Grizzly Bear, Tame Impala, Beach House, The Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective among others.

To the tracks!

‘One of These Days’ opens the album up in understated fashion. This is a mellow slowburn of an opener which inspires immediate groove-based nodding like so much slightly altered southern rock seems to do. It kind of reminds me of the opening to The ‘Meridian 1970’ compilation album from a few years ago – sure, things will get groovy, but not yet – its time to build something. I am talking music here rather than with Rizla papers. Bongos appear with subtlety – something that’s hard for the average bongoist (?) to achieve. This now gives a feeling of The National Trust’s marvellous ‘Dekaggar’ debut from over 10 years ago now. As rich brass blends into the overall sound, you realise that certain elements of this album are going to work in the same way that Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ did, updating or maybe just revisiting the Cosmic American songbook for a wild slightly ‘out there’ ride, but hopefully without the vocals of a Muppet this time. Plush maybe another reference point, less successful but owners of ‘Fed’ tend to view it as essential. The pace doesn’t seem to change, something more upbeat is seemingly imminent. However, the atmosphere is sweet and loving with repeated images of lying together. It may also be relevant that the first chorus is just hummed, perhaps a message that we should not be looking too deeply into the lyrics as they could be anything judging from the first chorus on the album. The whispered vocals make life difficult for anyone without a lyric sheet, or he really does sing ‘So much beauty in the face of soup’, which is a wonderful image but sadly ‘and it fades too soon’ is the second half of the sentence.

‘Big Love’ is less sweet. The voice now claims to be a barracuda and a hurricane or is this just bluster and bravado in the face of the end of something important? This sounds more like the classic album opener (‘Let’s begin to spiral’) or the more accessible single that betrays an album’s more reflective nature by dressing it up in a more mainstream shuffle that echoes Krautrock just to keep in with the in-crowd and that begs for ‘interesting’ remixers. It could also be described as sounding like a lost U2 album recorded after someone in their employment had just informed them that The Beta Band were fashionable but had no songs. But this would be harsh. The bassline wanders around wonderfully and again additional percussion is called upon to fill out the rhythm which now features hand claps. This could be introduced as a new Django Django single and no-one would bat an eye except to reflect that, like The Beta Band before them, they seem to be getting closer to developing an actual hit.

‘Will You Love Me’ sounds more classically southern in style and less fried. The string driven build of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is present again and now I’m starting to understand The Band references. This will become Uncut’s favourite new album of the year. Who else could get a mention? Brightblack Morninglight? The Guardian have already mentioned Bill Callahan and Marvin Gaye, which I like but there’s a lighter feel to the arrangements than Smog which breaks down this more deadpan delivery and Marvin links often seem good at the time but are always wildly inaccurate. ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ is echoed and even credited. Now the feeling is a fear of abandonment and the loneliness that may follow.

‘Gone Away’ has a simpler, almost campfire tone to its opening. Brass slowly emerges and strings before a hi-hat marks the rhythm. A chorus resolves yet another build and we can relax, for a while. More gospel-tinged than prior material, the song breaks the rhythm down just as we hear ‘He will tear your kingdom down’ before that rhythm rebuilds back towards the fade out. Rhythm is our saviour then, led by a funky gospel vibe. This song carries a lot of emotional weight and questions why a girl, White’s little cousin in fact, is in heaven and asks why she was taken. It depicts the family as clinging to the cross ‘with trembling and fear’. The relationships that affected mood in the first three songs now seem trivial when placed next to this loss. We are entering a darker place now as the family’s kingdom of innocence is broken and torn down by God. The song does feature strong echoes of ‘What Are You Doing in Heaven Today?’ by Washington Philips, a gospel song that does not overstate and can get a message across in a secular way too.

‘Steady Pace’ sets itself up with an awkward but jolly rhythm. The swagger of ‘Big Love’ may have partially returned. However, rhythm and melody resolve conflict in a beautiful chorus that dismisses the fuss of the arrangement experienced thus far. This leads into something of a classic funk breakdown again before reintroducing the confusion of earlier. It seems quite complex and chaotic but the craftmanship shines through in the structure. The brass has an afro-funk feel later on before yet another melody appears before the fade out. Is this southern prog? No, its complex but warm. It is the exact opposite of the detached Brooklyn hipster soundtrack of 2012 and possibly the antidote to it. This is to southern soul what ‘Django Unchained’ is to the Spaghetti Western: an exaggeration, an homage and yet still fresh and vibrant. Less blood though.

‘Hot Toddies’ are possibly the most well-rounded depiction of alcohol that exists. Who can argue against a hot toddy? They’re great for a cold and suggest companionship in front of a warm fire rather than reviving a collapsed drunk outside in freezing weather. This beautiful wintry song, complete with ‘frost on windows’ also echoes Mercury Rev but brings in the percussion and the breakdown again. That’s the third breakdown followed by slow build in as many tracks. Perhaps the opening three tracks served to set the scene before a trinity of musical traumas are recovered from leading to a salvation suggested in the final track. In the meantime, the ominous build which follows the breakdown adds percussion again in a Beta Bandesque kind of way before a few psychedelic strings and a brief, free sax solo finish things off. We haven’t had one of those yet. It was only a matter of time as Matthew E.White also leads a jazz band, Fight The Big Bull in his spare time. Maybe the jazz influence is what is strikingly original in an album which at the same time also feels like an homage.

Lush strings followed by triumphant brass introduce the lengthier album closer, ‘Brazos’ is presumably about crossing the longest river in Texas. However, Brazos in Richmond, Virginia appears to be a tamales joint so I could be wrong. This now sounds prettier than Mercury Rev trying to be cute and a lot more sincere than much of Plush. I get The Band comparisons now. Very religious, very gospel – all crossing the river and what not –  but seems sincere and certainly is beautiful. Crossing this river was also important in the drive west of the settlers which explains the ‘strangers in this land’ and ‘They say that white folks are never lazy’ references in the lyrics. This could easily be a traditional American song but for lyrics like ‘Take it easy baby’. Once again the bass leads change through a breakdown and a full on gospel climax seems ready to break out. In fact, as the rhythm resolves itself, it becomes reminiscent of an RZA rhythm that The Black Keys could only dream of recreating. Meanwhile, the chorus over the top of this is lifted from a religious Jorge Ben track, ‘Brother’. Those offbeats that clash with the rhythm are classic Ringo. At the end of it all, maybe a funky ‘Nixon’-era Lambchop is suggested but religious too. Like someone has finally woken up Brightblack Morning Light. A little like ‘Love Spreads’ too.

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The links and references could continue, in fact most readers could probably accurately improvise a couple of their own by now. Essentially, this seems to be an album that deals with a certain religious doubt that may stem from the end of an important romantic relationship for the voice though it may not have meant so much to the other half of it. It seeks answers but doesn’t find much beyond the standard response of Jesus saves. The doubt is the confrontation with the great unknowable element of religion that Graham Greene was so drawn to and it seems to also be a draw for Matthew E. White. Water is used frequently as a motif thus suggesting being reborn or at least cleansed. As the man was raised by missionaries, this isn’t hard to understand but perhaps this album shows how a religious understanding has provided the singer with support in his life. How can a truly southern album exist without the soul? Ask Primal Scream. However, the album does also seek to enjoy life either through a hollow bluster in ‘Big Love’ or taking life at a ‘Steady Pace’ or even taking ‘it easy baby’ in ‘Brazos’ and, as stated before, who doesn’t enjoy ‘Hot Toddies’?

This album does live up to the hype and does sound like an instant classic. It seems genuine, sincere and filled with soul. It is religious but does not seek to preach. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but does not seem derivative. This is an album that will be remembered by those who give it just a little of their time. Following it up will be very difficult, especially if this was just ‘Big Inner’s luck.