Matthew E. White’s debut record, 2012’s ‘Big Inner’ was hailed as a dramatic pop gospel classic and brought the giant Virginian to international notice. It sounded fresh and new yet had a timeless quality to it. Like a great painter studies the classics in order to master technique before producing something new and unique White seemingly had immersed himself in gospel, americana and rnb from across the ages before emerging with his own modern take on all of it.
To follow that up was always going to be a big ask but incredibly White has surpassed himself and produced a second classic album in ‘Fresh Blood.’ In some ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise because White is a man who takes his craft very seriously and who understands that at the heart of a good record is a collection of good songs. During the making of ‘Fresh Blood’ he kept a daily diary noting ‘what worked and what didn’t’ so that lessons could be learned and applied next time around. One can only assume that there was a ‘Big Inner: A Look Back’ also and what it contained may have been a note to himself that if a song is good enough it can carry the weight of a complex arrangement without sinking beneath a wave of instrumentation because in ‘Fresh Blood’ what we have is just that – loud and often euphoric brass and strings somehow managing to enhance a simple beautiful melody and understated vocal rather than drown it out or obscure. White is not only a great songwriter, he’s also a brilliant arranger.
It’s somehow fitting then that the album’s lead single ‘Rock & Roll Is Cold’ is itself a wry look at music itself, or to be more exact how the origins and magic of rock and roll as a musical genre has been lost as time has gone by and commercialism has taken it from its roots and severed it’s connection to it’s audience. Perhaps as a genre rock and roll has stopped evolving and has lost it’s relevance but that’s not to say that rock and roll songs still can’t connect to people on a personal level, as White’s certainly can do.
Rock & Roll Is Cold by Matthew E. White
You might expect that such a studious approach might result in anaemic sounding fare but the music here is anything but and sounds like the offspring of intelligent and expert parenting but also borne of passion and deep love.
And love is often the subject matter too. Indeed it permeates the record and bookends it. Opener ‘Take Care My Baby’ errs towards the lustful with it’s flirtatious and funky swagger and lyrics such as “I’m pumpin’ fresh blood for ya” whilst closer ‘Love Is Deep’ containing the simple but nontheless self evident refrain “love is deep shit” is a far more romantic affair and self knowingly invokes Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye in its lyric.
Elsewhere there are songs about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death (‘Tranquility’) and the rather difficult subject of child sexual exploitation within the Church (‘Holy Moly’) which understandably has a rather sombre and mournful feel to it, tinged with bitterness and anger.
White’s songs are the heart of this stunning record but mention too should be made of the tremendous musicianship on display. Back in 2012 White and friends established Spacebomb – an analog studio, record label and production house with in-house strings, horns and a choir, based in Virgiania. It was a huge financial risk but it paid dividends immediately on ‘Big Inner’ and here again the standard of playing and the cohesive and organic nature of the house band sound gives this record an authenticity the songs deserve.
As a reviewer I am fortunate enough to have been given free access to an advance copy of ‘Fresh Blood.’ It’s released on 9th March and is available on CD, Vinyl and via digital download but there is also a special edition of the album, which is a double LP gatefold heavyweight vinyl containing a bonus LP titled ‘Fresh Blood: No Skin ‘– a complete new full length minimalist mix of the full album, minus strings/horns or choir. I shall be investing in the special edition and will hope to catch White on tour when he visits Sage, Gateshead on 17th April.
Reviewer: Russell Poad