ON ROCK & ROLL IS COLD, the second track of Matthew E. White’s second album, the 32-year-old Virginian takes a rare break from essaying love in its many various forms to get a little ‘meta’, singing about music itself. Off-mike, some cynical cur boasts that he’s figured out how to fake it in gospel, soul and R&B. White rolls his eyes, pities the fool. “Everybody sees that R&B is free,” he whispers, incredulously. “Gospel licks,” he adds, “ain’t got no tricks.” Matthew E. White, by contrast, is no faker, and has got no tricks. And while familiar licks might abound – staccato string stabs on Take Care My Baby and Golden Robes that evoke Curtis Mayfield’s Give Me Your Love, or the bold, beaming Stax horns that shine on Vision – White’s music is too unique to simply be ersatz.
Rather, like Dexys’ Kevin Rowland or Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner before him, White evades the valley of slavish copyists by locating his own idiosyncratic dialect within the larger lexicon of soul. The house band at his Spacebomb Records studio robe his songs with strings, horns, Fender Rhodes, the sort of rich instrumentation that evokes soul at its plushest, but White’s vocals – dry, understated, deadpan – are something else, and the friction between those styles lends Fresh Blood a frisson. His lyrics, meanwhile, are more Bill Callahan than Bill Withers: dark, blackly humorous, mischievous and erotic.
Fresh Blood’s 10 tracks span an impressive spread of moods. Take Care My Baby packs lustful entendre within its graceful funk, a flushed White winking to his love, “I’m pumpin’ fresh blood for ya”. On the heady, blissful Fruit Trees, the carnal, the sensual and the romantic intertwine, as White conjures radiant orange trees and “falling cherry blossoms” to tell a tale of wild love running at odds with the world around it. Holy Moly, by contrast, is a bleak, broken crawl. Over mournful, murmuring piano, White connects with his bitterness and regret and comes out swinging, repeating a mantra, “Don’t you ever give a man false hope,” that feels more like a threat as the strings stir like the wind before a storm, and the drums rumble like a playhouse coming down.
Amid the album’s more dulcet reveries, Holy Moly’s turbulence is stark, powerful. But then, like Fresh Blood, love is the stuff of both ecstasy and agony. That’s the essence of the closing track, Love Is Deep, perhaps the sweetest confection on a bewitching album, a southern-tinged swelter featuring multi-tracked Matthews sighing, “Love is deep/Love is deep shit”. White is certainly not the first to make such an observation – “Ain’t it so, Marvin? Ain’t it so, Stevland?” he asks his legendary forebears, as if they were present as some Greek chorus of soul – but, as appears to be his gift, he draws something truly wonderful and wise from such well-worn ground. WATCH THE VIDEO FOR ROCK & ROLL IS COLD AND LISTEN TO THE ALBUM IN FULL BELOW
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