Andy Childs reviews the debut album from Matthew E. White, released in the UK today on Domino:
To these jaded ears Matthew E White’s debut album, Big Inner, already has the feel of a classic, a term I would not use lightly these days. First of all the songs are right there – really really good songs that lodge themselves in your mind and try to persuade you that you must have heard them many times before because they sound like, well, classics. Hits even. I’ve always preferred records that seduced and surprised, records that beseech repeated plays and invite you to participate. Records for life and not just this month. This is one of those records.
According to the largely incomprehensible biog on his web-site White apparently “unfolded out of the mingled sands of Virginia Beach and Manila” and with this background and a myriad of influences from Washington Phillips through Allen Toussaint, Jorge Ben, Jimmy Cliff and Randy Newman his music evolved. Reference points abound throughout but this is a unique-sounding and thoroughly contemporary record. A modern southern soul record that manages to fuse its contradictions so wonderfully well that it will disarm even the most discerning of critics.
It’s intense and relaxed, traditional and modern, understated and compelling, familiar and surprising, smooth and edgy. White’s vocals are delicate and subdued, Arthur Russell-ish even, but soulful in a uniquely southern soul way. And the instrumentation is teasingly tentative, always tempting you to want more but leaving you knowing it would have been a mistake. What you do get is perfect. Some great guitar playing too. And there are also string and brass arrangements (White is a well-respected jazz arranger) and these too are restrained and subtle almost to the point of self-consciousness but so effective when they let loose as they do on ‘Big Love’, one of seven tracks on the record.
The opener, ‘One Of These Days’, begins quietly and languidly and then reveals a succession of tasters of what to expect from then on. Lyrical guitar work, unforgettable melody, textural backing vocals, subtle brass and string underpinning. Sublime. ‘Big Love’ is the album’s epic track and ‘Will You Love Me’ its elegant ballad. And so the scene is set for four more tracks of stately, life-enhancing music that leads you to familiar places where all the furniture is re-arranged in unexpected but deeply satisfying ways; it’s laid-back casualness belying its detail and intricate design. It’s not a record that assertively insists on your attention, and I can imagine it working well as an ambient recording on the sort of hot, humid summer day that we so rarely experience here, but ultimately its strengths and many charms are impossible to ignore. As it’s only January I hope I’m wrong but something tells me I may not hear a record as satisfying as this for the rest of the year.
You can buy Big Inner from the Caught by the River shop, priced £10