Matthew E. White: K Bay Album Review
Matthew E. White reveled in the sounds and styles of American popular music from the ’60s and’ 70s while slightly avoiding the pitfalls of pastiche: lifeless quotes or reprimanded subtext. His hopping insight saves his music from the first, his embrace from the modernity of the second. (His exploratory jazz background is also helpful.) His music invites scrutiny, but his treatment of his touchstones, which encompass Stax soul and Brill Building pop, is too motley for footnotes. can contain. And anyway, that’s the kind of thing you do when you’re bored. White is never boring, and sooner rather than later, a moment of delicious sonic crafting will have you ditching crate digging and giving in to the mad rush.
These times come early and often Bay K, White’s third album as a conductor. Maybe it’ll grab your attention when the catchy yeah-yeah-yeah sample drops into the booming monochrome rock of “Nested” with some sort of fatal silliness. And then there’s the metric-crazy transition that happens a minute into “Let’s Ball,” which feels like a late ’90s rap beat lined with DC go-go-infused satin and a hint of Out Hud. In the astonishing “Take Your Time (And Find That Orange to Squeeze)”, after what sounds like James Blake turning the knobs behind a Burt Bacharach prelude, a hyperrealistic whirlwind of percussion opens a portal into a heavy R&B realm. The song transforms so cleverly that it makes the bumper music of radio stations seem like a viable art form in itself.
Bay K reunites White with many textures from its previous version, a collaboration with Lonnie Holley. A kaleidoscopic palette of strings, winds, harp, xylophone, electric piano and analog synthesizer leaves no unshaded tint. White’s slightly sleazy vocal style resembles Matthew Dear, or even, when backed by the cool mottled jazz of “Fell Like an Ax,” the usually unmistakable King Krule. White’s new daring as a singer is just one way Bay K diverges from his earlier records, where his reverence for his musical heroes was such that at times it could hardly be heard. Compared to his lambent beginnings, Large interior, which has been softened by gospel and country strains, the grooves are heavy, decked out with deep bass and nimble muted guitars. They also broaden White’s scope, making forays into new-wave pop (The Cars loom particularly large), no-wave dance-punk and krautrock.
While almost every song is captivating in its own way, one of them deserves special attention. On a record otherwise steeped in vague reflections on personal issues, “Only in America / When the Curtains of the Night Are Peeled Back” is White’s attempt to fight racial injustice. It’s a beautiful, complicated song that spins on at least two axes, as chamber pop melts into jazz and Randy Newman transforms into Bon Iver. White’s perspective on the subject may elicit different responses from different listeners, or from the same listener at different times. For me, the bridge between his windy verses and the invocations of names like Philando Castille is too far to bear the moral weight. The song shows White to be a sensitive Virginian, but appearing on this apolitical record, he comes across as borrowed thunder rather than earned.
“Only in America” arrives a little more than halfway through Bay K, and although the album quickly corrects the course, it never quite reaches the heights of the first half again. But even the lightest tracks would stand out on a smaller disc. If White’s gambits start to repeat themselves, they do it in style with “Never Had It Better,” a great wave of swirling piano and crashing strings, and the drag-racing beach-jazz of “Judy”. The sound of Bay K is so good – so plump, so crisp, so tapered and puffed – that White can look like a studio hermit whose talent never ceases to thwart his loneliness. Spacebomb, the label and studio he operates with vintage gear and house musicians, has become a lightning rod over the past decade, and eventually he had to build a second studio to get away from it all. This home studio, Kensington Bay, gave both life and name to this record: it illustrates how White flourishes at the center of his own musical cosmology.
Buy: Crude Trade
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