Matthew E White – Big Inner (2013)

When you’re writing about rock music talking about what happened thirty years ago is cool or at least retrospective, talking about what happened two years ago just makes you look hopelessly late for the party.

But here I go anyway.

There is some quite interesting background to this record which was released on the Spacebomb label.

Spacebomb is an interesting attempt to create a situation such as used to exist at Stax or Motown or Muscle Shoals – a studio with it’s own producers, engineers and backing band. A one stop recording shop if you will. White is the head honcho (producer, proprietor, guitarist in the house band) at Spacebomb and this is the label’s first release. That one stop stop shop model started breaking down in the 70s as bands started exercising more control over the creative process and star producers started to emerge, but it had already generated a significant number of hits, and also schooled songwriters and players who would etch their name in to the history of rock ‘n roll.

The retro doesn’t stop there. White’s first solo album is thoroughly steeped in sixties traditions. Spacebomb is based in the old South (Virginia), and the recent musical history of the Southern USA is not just country and bluegrass but also soul and the early mix of gospel, country and blues that became Rock ‘ Roll. Stax – as significant a soul label as any – was in Tennessee. When Dusty Springfield decided to fully embrace Soul music she went to Nashville. The Queen Aretha Franklin recorded some of her early cross over (from spiritual to secular) hits at Muscle Shoals. Ray Charles had come out of the South as had Al Green, Wilson Pickett and many other soul stars with their own roots in gospel music. White taps straight into that tradition.

He has roots and influences too (just like nearly everybody did in the sixties). You can hear suggestions of Randy Newman, Jimmy Cliff (who White quotes verbatim – and with a co-write credit – on “Will You Love Me”), James Taylor and Joe South amongst the aforementioned sixties soul grooves.

Finally there’s the way the whole thing SOUNDS. White (to whom all credit and all blame are due) goes for a deliberately lo-fi sound that mimics the way strings especially sounded on those old 60s records made on four and eight track equipment that always necessitated overdubs and jamming several parts on instruments onto one tape track.

White is not the first producer in recent years to work in this way, and I’m not necessarily a fan of this MO, figuring that most of those great sixties records were great despite not because of their sonic limitations. But I suppose it might be seen as a reaction to the sometimes excessive and shallow gloss of modern recordings, and White pulls it off in a less contrived sounding way than is often the case.

White released this album in the USA in 2012 and it was well received. It was only when it crossed the ocean the next year and hit shops and magazines in Britain that it started to achieve critical mass – another interesting echo of the past (though it must be unintentional) in which white kids in Britain were much more familiar with and fond of the full spectrum of American music than their counterparts across the Atlantic.

So in many ways it’s a post-modern record.

The soul stylings are endless without being imitative or a pastiche. I picked up a couple of very familiar sounding passages early on, notably the lines from Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross” and the recycling of the old Gospel song “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today”. Maybe only us old farts would recognise this stuff. White is knowing and deliberate about it and gives proper credit.

Once I got past that I was struck by the restrained nature of the record. White lands his blows by going easy. The vocals are passionate but gentle, the tempos often laid back, and for the most part the overdubs are there, but just. I must mention the bass player, Cameron Ralston, who lays down the solid grooves that good soul requires and also provides more than his fair share of the hooks. He lays down a marvellous, pulsing bottom line on “Big Love” and that track serves as a good example of the understated aesthetic of the album – with the strings and the gospel vocals in place but not overpowering. White fashions a quite seductive aural space with the instruments and parts dotted around the place and in their own space (which means he doesn’t have to turn them up to emphasise them). You don’t need to turn it up either – it works well at low volumes and would make a marvellous late night, low volume listen when you’ve … got yourself into a relaxed and receptive state of mind.

Not that I think that White is into any of that (despite including a track titled “Hot Toddies”). His parents were missionaries, working in South and Central America, and the gospel references are more than just musical, culminating with the long chant at the end of “Brazos”. Religion and popular music can make an uncomfortable combination (don’t have to, but the potential is certainly there) but White mostly stays just this side of zealousness and pulpit bashing and so it doesn’t get tedious. Indeed he stretches that long chant out most cleverly with subtle variations that keep the ear interested.

He also neatly manages to stay “in character” (so to speak) whilst taking some unexpected twists and turns in the music (“Gone Away”, “Brazos”) and adding some spice to the arrangements – mostly in the horns, which he arranges himself or even with some clever sound effects on “Big Love” (I think he’s reprising some of the taple loop effects that the Beatles used on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, but it’s not an emphatic reference and may not be a reference at all and I’m not going to argue it) and the unexpected, untelegraphed passage he tacks onto the end of “Hot Toddies”. Often he and the band go for the effective rather than the virtuosic.

So it’s … organic. Everything working nicely together. And despite the obvious influences it doesn’t sound imitative but like something new and possibly the start of something significant (if not outright big).

By the time this gets published I’ll be on holiday (I set this post up in advance then cued it for publication). I hope to get my mind around the next big thing from Spacebomb and get some thoughts down on paper for a delayed next post.

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One thought on “Matthew E White – Big Inner (2013)

  1. Pingback: Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass (2015) | YA Blog

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