Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
In the ’60s, a handful of pop songwriters began to treat their work, normally considered a commodity, as art. Phil Spector used orchestral instruments to create “little symphonies for kids,” in turn inspiring Brian Wilson’s “teen-age symphonies to God.” As the Beatles crafted psychedelic soundscapes on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Burt Bacharach was putting his studies with modernist composer Darius Milhaud to good use, incorporating jazz changes into Dionne Warwick hits. Even in the ’70s, Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell—and all disco songs—relied on orchestral instrumentation. By adding strings, horns, and piano to songs rooted in folk, blues, rock, or funk, these artists produced extravagant bouquets of sound from small blooms of chords.
But since punk took the pomp out of pop, bands have rejected most attempts to take songs beyond their three-chord foundations. Anything that took longer than a few minutes to cook up was considered phony in the post-punk world. Now that neopunk’s all the rage, here to save us is Eric Matthews with some symphonies of his own.
As the duo Cardinal, Matthews and partner Richard Davies produced an album of lovingly lush melodramas with titles like “If You Believe in Christmas Trees” and “Singing to the Sunshine.” Not nearly as coy as their titles, the songs (primarily penned by Davies and orchestrated by Matthews) are truly touching paeans to romance.
On It’s Heavy in Here, Matthews arranges his own tunes around his own voice. And while his style of arrangement rock is a throwback to the ’60s (despite the back-cover proclamation that “This is the New Breed”), Matthews imbues his music with timelessly appealing melodies, harmonies, and instrumentation. Though he doesn’t consider his music completely atavistic, Matthews does admit to “a deliberate return to a form of the past.”
“Into this environment of sometimes amusing, but more often intolerable noise-making,” announce the liner notes to Matthews’ Sub Pop release, “we introduce a brilliant young artist.” The irony of this statement won’t escape followers of ’90s rock, since Sub Pop was the label responsible for popularizing intolerable noise. Matthews admits in a recent issue of Raygun that he shuns punk-rock nihilism because he’s about creating beauty. Perhaps Sub Pop needed to hit bottom with bands like Cat Butt before it could recognize aesthetes like Matthews.
Heavy proclaims Matthews’ sensibility from the opening “Fanfare,” which finds him coloring in the song’s folk-rock outlines with a buoyant blast of brass recalling the Beatles’ “Penny Lane.” His voice marks the perfect midpoint in the range of confessional singer-songwriter styles, falling between the breathy whisper of Nick Drake and the crisply enunciated declamations of Lou Barlow. Matthews’ buttery tones are slick but distinctive, soulful but reposed. He achieves a similar balance in arranging, mindful not only of what is added to a piece, but what is left out. The mannered pauses at the end of “Fanfare” ‘s verses break the linear structure of the song, letting the music breathe.
Matthews showcases his falsetto on “Fanfare,” which makes his basso profundo backing vocal on “Forging Plastic Plan” that much more striking. The song’s harmony vocal gets improbably low, while Matthews’ phrasing on the lead recalls that of the Left Banke’s Steve Martin and the Zombies’ Colin Blunstone. The stripped-down “Faith to Clay,” which features Matthews on harpsichord and his brother Wes on acoustic guitar, also recalls the Left Banke and its baroque pop arrangements. “Three-Cornered Moon” ‘s couture collection of instruments includes not only harpsichord, but cello, viola, violin, organ, trumpets, string bass and tenor saxophone. If Romeo and Juliet were rockers, “Three-Cornered Moon” would be their song: Romeo looking up toward the balcony and quoting Matthews: “Spend time above me/I feel so below thee.”
An obvious influence on Heavy‘s impressionistic, romantic lyrics is Van Dyke Parks, who co-wrote the Beach Boys’ Smile with Brian Wilson, as well as the Boys’ “Surf’s Up.” (That song’s “columnated ruins domino” reportedly sent Wilson’s lunkhead cousin Mike Love into a fury over its meaning.) Like Parks, Matthews chooses words for their metrical and sonic impact as well as their meaning. “More wants more/Give in to all her needs/Fraught with the danger we need/Limit not within these reeds” from “Distant Mother Reality” is as enigmatic as any of Parks’ rhymes, but Matthews isn’t always so oblique. In a half-stilted lilt he sings “Fried out broken girl/Swallowed every pill/So pitiful boy meets girl/In beautiful beds they twirl.” While the teen-dreamer lyrics are obvious, they feel as good in the mouth as in the heart. “Sincere Sensation” addresses the innocence of youth with “Stand and face your fears and wait/For a better day,” but what could be cloying is rendered touching by Matthews’ velvet voice.
Matthews has a five-record deal with Sub Pop and claims that the last album of his contract will not include a single guitar—the music will be played entirely by orchestra. Such long-term vision is impressive. If the intervening records are as intelligently constructed as Heavy, No. 5 will doubtless find Matthews ranked with his arrangement-rock heros.
For its second self-titled release, London sextet Tindersticks augments its pensive, rumpled folk-rock—the band follows in the tradition of such moody, introspective artists as Scott Walker and Nick Cave—with violins, violas, and cellos, as well as trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and French horns. But unlike Matthews’ tasteful arrangements, those on Tindersticks are characterized by superfluous additions.
Tindersticks began experimenting with large-ensemble string arrangements in a series of orchestral concerts in England, which rendered the band’s customarily intimate and dark sound grandiose. The first Tindersticks, a minimasterpiece, featured strings in small measure; the second calls out the entire symphony.
Everything about Tindersticks is big: big band, big arrangements, big sound, big records (both releases are double-album length). But things work best when they get small. Tossing out orchestral clutter for the album’s first single, “No More Affairs,” gives the tune an appropriately desolate backdrop. Keyboardist David Boulter’s organ moans like a funeral dirge as Stuart Staples delivers a eulogy for a love lost to infidelity. “Cherry Blossom” also works the minimalist angle to galvanizing effect. For most of the song, only a delicate piano supports Staples’ spoken words before a quiet string arrangement swoops in behind the—of course—melancholy words. (Lyrical breadth is not among Tindersticks’ strengths.)
The band’s sound matches its somber subjects. “El Diablo en el Ojo” opens the album, introducing quiet, droning, atonal strings, which build over drummer Al Macaulay’s delicate brushwork and Neil Fraser’s melancholy guitars, until they overwhelm all the other instruments. Like Walker’s, Staples’ voice is so deep and muted it sounds like the tweeters have been stuffed with gauze. And like Cave, Staples delivers erudite pontifications on obsessive love and loss, the words dissolving in his throat.
The spirits of Cave and John Cale permeate the record. On “My Sister,” vibraphones introduce a dreamy bossa-nova melody as Staples adopts a distinctly menacing persona. It’s easy to imagine Staples prowling the stage, lit cigarette in hand, wrinkled suit hanging off his large frame, greased hair framing his despondent glare as he relates a violent tale in a dour monotone. But the subject matter—the maiming of his sister by her boyfriend—actually belies the song’s cheerful trombone and trumpet solos, which float on watery organ accents.
Tindersticks suffers from being too much of the same—and simply too much. Where Matthews unfurls 14 diverse tracks in just over 40 minutes, Tindersticks‘ 16 songs stretch past the 70-minute mark. Staples’ voice drones on and on without variety; there is no respite from the band’s bleak and blurry worldview. Reprogramming the CD reveals what a superb single record the best cuts could have made. The band’s orchestration could have stood some pruning, too—it’s hard not to wish for Matthews’ sense of economy. While Tindersticks’ debut provided a deep breath of fresh air in 1992’s grunge-polluted atmosphere, taken in full, this stormy new release just clouds memories of that fine debut.