MaxxMusic & The Evening Muse Present:
MATTHEW E. WHITE
3227 N. Davidson St.
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 7:30 PM
Watch & Listen
MATTHEW E. WHITE
On Dec. 24, 2013, Matthew E. White could not fall asleep in his childhood bedroom. The Richmond singer, bandleader and modern soul visionary had returned to his parents’ home in Virginia Beach for the holidays. During the previous 18 months, he’d toured Europe and America extensively, played Primavera and Glastonbury, performed at The Hollywood Bowl and the Sydney Opera House, and even staged a live rendition of his surprise-hit debut, Big Inner, with a band of 30 members. Big Inner earned five stars in The Guardian and a spot on its year-end list, plus those of Pitchfork, eMusic and Consequence of Sound. But White hadn’t rested or seen his family very much. At last, he was excited to do both.
The insomnia, though, didn’t stem from childlike anticipation of early-morning presents. Actually, White hurt too much to sleep. Not long after he arrived in Virginia Beach, he developed a sudden case of shingles, the stresses of the last year-and-a-half rendering themselves in painful physical form. So while his parents visited his grandmother and his sister celebrated with her own family just a few blocks away, White spent Christmas Eve alone in his childhood double bed.
But that was OK, as the break gave him the chance to consider the bizarre turns his life had taken—that is, how he went from making a solo record by accident to embracing a solo career so busy it had made him sick.
“For the first time, I remember thinking, ‘What just happened?’” he says, laughing long after the shingles have passed. “I thought about all the places I went, the people I played to, the people who cared about my record and felt moved by it. That was the craziest year of my life by miles and miles—and the hardest and the most exciting, too.”
To backtrack, briefly: In 2009, White and a cadre of friends developed the idea of Spacebomb Records, an old-fashioned label and production house meant to turn the tunes of songwriters they liked into grandiose, graceful statements. They had in-house strings and horns and a choir at their behest, too. Collectively, the musicians possessed a wide, working knowledge that could pivot from the gusto of New Orleans to the verve of Detroit, from tube-amp rock to hi-fi pop. Sure, people like to talk about White’s past with jazz or his love of classic American songcraft. It’s telling, however, that as a high school student, he interned at Master Sound, the hometown studio that Pharrell Williams eventually turned into the epicenter of his empire.
To demonstrate the Spacebomb ideal, White and his wide cast recorded a few songs he’d pieced together, hoping mostly to show other songwriters how the system would work. But those cuts became Big Inner, the record that Uncut termed “one of the great albums of modern Americana” and caused Paste to proclaim that White was one of music’s “best new bands.” Tours, interviews, photo shoots and, well, the shingles followed.
While White spent Christmas Eve considering what had happened, he already knew what was going to happen next: When the holidays ended, he would begin turning the bits and bobs of song ideas he’d collected on tour into his second album, bolstered by the validation of welcome he’d found in the wider world.
If the first album had been serendipity, every step of this one was to be deliberate, from his co-writing sessions with longtime friend and former bandmate Andy Jenkins to his steady arrangement brainstorms with the trusted Spacebomb house band—bassist Cameron Ralston, drummer Pinson Chanselle and guitarist Trey Pollard, who co-produced the subsequent recording sessions with White. There were timelines and deadlines, detailed discussions about who would mix the music (New York staple Patrick Dillett) and the many stories the songs would share. The result is the audacious, confident and masterful Fresh Blood, a record that feels like the brilliant bloom to Big Inner’s striking bud.
Fresh Blood is a bracing, beguiling record and a bold advance for White. Opener “Take Care My Baby” is his step-into-the-light moment, a sophisticated but instantly winning soul number where love becomes a panacea for woe. That enthusiasm crosses over for “Fruit Trees,” a smiling, seductive number where White—his voice traced and teased by horns, strings and harmonies—begs for a paramour to “let me sleep in your tent tonight.” Sometimes these situations don’t go well, though, which White confesses during “Feeling Good is Good Enough.” It’s a breakup song in ecstatic pursuit of temporary carnal relief.
And while it’s got nothing to do with love, lust or leaving, the sassy “Rock & Roll is Cold” radiates the aplomb of an artist who has stumbled into success and taken charge of the circumstances. White’s having fun, trading lines with backup singers and saxophones alike, teasing components of the gospel, soul and rock form that shape the very backbone of the music he makes. This is White’s party, and he’s a most welcoming host.
That same spirit presides during the set of more solemn and pointed songs that serve as Fresh Blood’s core. For White, one lesson of Big Inner and the tours that followed was that he wanted to be able to believe in his songs every night, to know that the words he sang were more than vehicles for memorable melodies.
“I didn’t like singing ‘Steady Pace’ every night. It was too light. It didn’t age well for me,” he says. “My peers and I sometimes have a lack of concern and awareness for the world around us—culturally, politically, socially. We are in danger of being lulled to sleep by our culture’s excess. I’m not writing political songs yet, but I’ve tried to at least write songs that have to do with the variety and reality of our lives."
And so, at the record’s center, White delivers a trilogy of beautiful reflections on the world as he sees it. An agitated but elegant excoriation of sexual abuse in the church, “Holy Moly” rages like a missing midpoint between Neil Young’s Harvest and Tonight’s the Night. “Tranquility” meditates on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a consummate artist whose dual force and frailty has long resonated with White.
And in “Circle ’Round The Sun,” a look at the suicide of a dear friend’s mother, White finds one of the most exquisite moments of balance in his entire career. It is a love song written from the perspective of the recently departed, calmly exploring a tumult of conflicting loyalties—to Jesus, to family, to life, to death.
“Wading in the water, Lord, keep my son and daughter,” White sings, at once gentle and resolved over steady and soft piano and drums. “Put your arms around me, Jesus, tonight.”
At the risk of heresy, Fresh Blood feels as comfortable and fraught as those lines and that song. Simultaneously recognizing the trouble and delight that life can bring, these 10 numbers are guides for times of joy, agony and the middle distance where we most often linger. After only two albums, Matthew E. White feels now like an old friend who has seen what we’ve seen, heard our stories and done his best to make a record that gives them necessary gravity. That way, when we lay awake at night considering our own pain or worry, we’ve got new anthems to keep us company.
Domino will release Fresh Blood worldwide on CD, LP and digitally March 9, 2015
From the front porches, alleys, and rivers of Richmond, Virginia, comes Andy Jenkins carrying a crisp, newly cut album, Sweet Bunch. Hatched in the tradition of Southern culture–unhurried in his art, unworried by external demands, yet weirdly ahead of the curve by the time he arrives–Andy is a distinctive and joyously idiosyncratic songwriting talent developed for years in obscurity. Sweet Bunch springs into the world fully-formed, the work of a confident, timeless as well as contemporary singer-songwriter, offering beautiful and basic melodies with lyrics exploring the fluidity between the banal and the sublime. His work feels natural, complete within itself, untrained musically but adherent to its own forms and intricate in its own ways. Spring peepers line the path; the author feeds her peacocks strutting among vines and ruins; a photographer waits for the right light and color in frame. Each song presents a rich, new tableau of sound, glowing worlds to discover, rooted in an unnamed sense of place.
Andy could have found no better seedbed for this sensibility to flower than Spacebomb, a label known for offering high musicianship outside of the predictabilities of New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles. Produced by Matthew E. White, Sweet Bunch was recorded in three magical days of flow-state, the drums, bass, keys, and guitars all live and nothing to regret. The source of this musical surety lies above all with Jenkins’ songwriting–natural and effortless as the glide of a swan or sailboat–matched in spirit and strength by the sweet bunch in the studio. The Spacebomb crew ran hard into midnight with a few ringers along for the ride, and a very full chorus of voices shining bright behind Andy’s relaxed, self-assured singing, gently insistent as it dips and soars at every measure. Contentment in life and patience with craft is announced, almost as credo, on the opening track “Hazel Woods”:
Man, I would love to finish the book but I still have pages and pages of lines. Time sends out a withering look, but I pay it no mind. God, it’s a drag to figure it out, but what else can I do? Nothing whatever, but to read for my pleasure, as the light passes through…
Jenkins sends his warm words buoyed on cool streams of melody, to tell the greater world that Virginia has become, once again, a musical frontier. He sits at a crossroads of modernism, sensitivity and decision, with the expansiveness and musical drawl of Big Star, the bounce of Warren Zevon, and the curly, perfectly-carved melodies of Kevin Ayers. His lyrics have a tendency to stick in the mind, not straightforward storytelling, but always delivering a kind of payoff or reward. Their surrealism, closer to the origin of that term, sees the world in dualities, layered images and dreams. On the topic of love, he is soul-bearing yet light, focused outward, singing conversationally as if from driver to passenger remarking on the passing views. In a way, all of his songs are outdoor songs. Each paints a wide and wild landscape, the mood of a sun setting on a damn good day spent among friends and favored creatures. Sitting high on the hog, like a bump on a log, getting lost in the goodness of the earth.