I know you can’t help
That your smile is the brightest
It’s hard to look away
That (almost) haiku that opens Big Inner, the debut release for Richmond, VA band leader, composer, and beard enthusiast, Matthew E. White. The beard thing is, of course, a joke, but the rest is serious business. Founder and composer for the Richmond collective, Fight The Big Bull, Smith has stepped out in front with this album and may find that people won’t want him to simply direct from behind anymore.
Those lyrics kick off the slow swaying opening cut, “One Of These Days” which seems, at first, to be a simple soul number. When White begins humming what may be the second half of the verse, one might mistakenly think he’s already out of ideas. But then the horns swell into the mix, the refrain comes along and dammit if there isn’t a haunting choir on the bridge. Before the tune ends there’s even some strings.
Deceptively simple might be the trademark of this album. Judicious mixing keeps so much at bay that would probably overwhelm a listener if White simply pushed up the faders. This is true of many albums but, on Big Inner, many of the tracks are busting at the seams with horns, strings, an excellent rhythm section, straight ahead soul backing vocals, a full on choir and more. “Big Love” pushes more of these out front as the driving tempo is built to carry the bombast. It starts with a (baritone?) sax bleating in the distance before the groove engages and is followed by White’s soft spoken vocals. Two minutes in, the cut reaches the feverish pitch of backing vocals, strings, and hand claps that is the refrain. Then comes the break down. White is smooth and convincing as he declares:
Girl, I am a barracuda
I am a hurricane
I believe this sort of thing used to be called “blue-eyed soul”. I don’t know what color White’s eyes may be but he’s definitely got some soul. His voice breaks slightly as he sings “Darkness can’t drive out darkness. Only love can do that,” on Jimmy Cliff’s “Will You Love Me.” And, as the band rises up behind him, you know that the vocals are sincere.
This buy-in comes just in time for a moving ballad about loss, “Gone Away”. This song cuts to the bone as it questions the loss of a loved one. The contradicting phrases “taken away” and “given away” alternate, revealing a glimpse at the conflict in the heart of grief. In support of this difficult matter, White channels a gospel-influenced choir and majestic horns as a striding, sanctuary piano drives up the center of the mix.
This is followed by the uplifting “Steady Pace” which, along with a great mood pick up, is a stellar showcase of White’s arranging talents. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Matthew E. White [billed as Matt White] has arranged horns for Megafaun (whose music readers of this site know I love without reservation.) This favor is returned by Megafaun’s Phil Cook who arranged choral parts and played piano on this record.
In fact, the liner notes read like a Richmond musician’s contact list. White brought in friends and friends of friends in corralling what is not just the first record with his name above the fold but its also the first release from the label he co-founded, Spacebomb Records (the record has been co-released by Portland, Oregon’s Hometapes.) If this is an indication of the direction that Spacebomb will take, I’ll keep listening.
Strings swirl about as White paints a picture of warmed boozing by a Winter fire in “Hot Toddies”.
The lord made lemons and the lord made me
but the devil and his demons gave us sweet whiskey.
As a whisky drinker, I can relate to the sentiment.
From the devil to jeebus, with a brilliant fanfare, the closing track, Brazos engages the listener for a bit of a journey. White explores his thoughts on matters of the spirit as the record slow boils to its final climax. You can’t help but swing with the gospel groove. It smolders with soul as all of the album’s key elements- choir, strings, horns, and a bit of electric guitar (this is not a guitar solo sort of album)- percolate through the extended coda.
Often, it has been said of an artist’s debut album that it is a statement of mission. While that sort of thing may seem trite, this record serves beautifully to remind us that some things, when delivered with sincerity and soul or simply for all the right reasons, are never trite. This album is a mission statement. But it stands as a statement for more than White’s career. It’s about declaring the intent of Richmond, VA to be heard and marked with bold strokes on the musical map of America.
And then get your click on over to NYCTaper to grab White’s set from Hopscotch.