REVIEW: Matthew E. White - "Big Inner"

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Matthew E. White - Big Inner
Record Label - Hometapes/Spacebomb
Release Date - August 21, 2012

It's time that we rescue a genre -- blue-eyed soul.  While the actual version of soul feels truncated with the Roots on Fallon and old masters continuing to tour while their peers die off, the blue-eyed kind (aka made by white people) has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance due, mainly, to Bon Iver's insistence on calling his music "soul," which I suppose it is. Emotionality overcomes musicality, too often.  While Matthew E. White's heritage isn't strictly euro (his bio has him growing up between Manilla and Virginia Beach), there is something unmistakable in the compound production of his debut Big Inner.  This record feels like it crawled out of time in all the right ways.  If Justin Vernon is the Van Morrison of our new blue-eyed soul with his sweeping folky sentimentality perfect for romantic comedy and making the panties drop, then Matthew E. White is early Randy Newman or Joe Jackson -- cerebral, acute, polished, acerbic, and musically stunning.

White, who orchestrated the Mountain Goats new record Transcendental Youth, makes Big Inner a sublimely handcrafted affair.  Put out on his own imprint, Spacebomb, the record beings with cooing  on "One of these Days," emerging like a bedroom whisper, before grooving out into sweet-tempered instrumentation moored atop a lackadaisical rhythm section.  "One of these Days" sets the tone for a record which creates songs that are more than the sum of their parts.  If there is a necessity in soul music, it's the necessity of the elemental.  That you can do just about anything with a track if you've got the rhythm in the right place.  For this reason, too, it's a true producer's medium -- sliding scales and knobs to get everything to fit in the right way.  So too does White's prodigious skill shine in the orchestration.  the pause of "Big Love" right hand turns the song into a sax-driven bridge with backup singers tooting "I am the same old shit" behind White before the keys kick back in pushing the song to its cycled conclusion.

The old realtor saying goes:  "Location, location, location."  In music we can translate this into placement.  When emotional content arises lyrically, the actual emotionality of the tune is conveyed not through language, but music.  It is, of course, that unwritten language to get at the unwritten parts of our life.  So the stutter step of "Will You Love Me" reflects the indecision of the song itself.  As the piano and rhythm section shakes through the track, the connective thread of the song is actually the strings which soar solo before becoming adorned with women's voices.  The grand climax sinks back into the flushed out mood hinted at through the opening.  It's a tactic that White employs beautifully on this album.  The vocals are tamped down in the mix on par, or subtextualized, by the instrumentation.  It's as if White is purposefully eschewing the emotionality of the lyrics in favor of a more subtle emotionality.  He uses lyrics not as conveyors of meaning in these sons but as part and parcel of a richer palette. 

Of course, romantic love is only one major theme of soul.  The other, of course, is religion.  White elides the thematic poles as on the album's closer (and subject of the live video above), the expansive, "Brazos" which features the choral chant "Jesus Christ is our Lord / Jesus Christ, he is your friend."  Or the slow holy-rolling ending of "Gone Away" with "He will bring your kingdom down / He will tear your kingdom down" over Dr. John inspired piano rolls.  "Brazos" is the longest track on the album and one of its finest.  The flourish of horns at the start recall church services and Stax records.  As you may struggle to understand the lyrics a the beginning, White punches "take it easy, babe" out of the mix with harmonies.  Far from proselytizing, the churchy parts of "Brazos" come off as quotations and allusions.  The gospel roots of soul, here, provide a touchstone for the genre itself when the other end end, funk, with the extended bass run slams against the chant about Christ.  

As White recreates soul in front of us on this record, he does it through deconstruction rather than nostalgia.  The cycle at the end of "Brazos" builds itself up on the elemental musicality of the album.  White's never one to lose his head on this record, the genius of this album is in accurate placement of musical elements in a record which continually surprises and surpasses expectations.  And, it's for this reason that the record is a fascinating and rewarding mix of cerebral blue-eyed soul.  Not mimicking but reappropriating the soul genre into the 21st century, White manages to seemingly reinvent something by never straying far from it.    


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