Catching Up with Eric Matthews
Yesterday, I played “Since the Wheel Free,” a song from The Lateness of the Hour (1997), the second album by Eric Matthews, on my radio show. As I wrote in an e-mail message to Nate a few minutes ago, I was feeling a bit nostalgic and a bit needy when I decided to put it into the rotation. Matthews, after all, had not released an album of new material under his name for nearly eight years.
I first heard him one afternoon in the fall of 2001. As I romantically (and probably exaggeratedly) remember it, I was driving around Ann Arbor, doing some errand or another, on a particularly warm and beautiful September day. I was listening to the Martin Bandyke show on WDET when I heard this really amazing song, one that started with a trumpet fanfare over a deep, melodic bass line and some mildly churning electric guitars panned hard left and right, and, soon afterwards, some nonsensical and evocatively breathy vocals. I don’t recall liking the rest of the set, but I waited in my car for nearly 15 minutes in a parking lot to hear Bandyke come on to back announce. And thus began my love for Eric Matthews’ work as well as that of the many musicians with whom he has worked.
The first CD of his I managed to find in one of my local stores was the above-mentioned album, which, unfortunately, didn’t contain the tune I heard on the radio: “Fanfare.” Finding The Lateness of the Hour first turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for I was introduced to a stellar set of songs that some critics have label “orch-pop,” short for orchestral pop. On my favorite tracks—among them “Ideas That Died That Day,” “My Morning Parade,” “Everything So Real,” “The Pleasant Kind” and “Dopeyness”—Matthews had managed a nearly perfect combination of rock and pop arranging with an expanded orchestral palette. Strings, woodwinds, and brass, as ensembles and in more featured solo spots, sounded totally natural in a mix that included electric guitars and basses, jangling acoustic guitars, harpsichord as well as drums that shockingly sounded as though they were really recorded in a room with wooden panels. The songs were all gems that sounded like a perfect escape from a mid- and late 1990s musical landscape sometimes overly dotted with bands whose production offered lots of ear candy, but not necessarily great songcraft and arranging.
Over the next several weeks, while I waited for a special order It’s Heavy in Here (1995) to arrive, I turned to all of the Internet and published sources I could find to learn more about Matthews. He was a trumpeter who had a fondness for symphonic music—one result of his studies in different conservatory environments—as well as jazz, classic pop (of the Burt Bacharach variety), and early-’80s post-punk music. And critics apparently loved him, though the vagaries of marketing, his being perhaps out of step with the 1990s musical climate and his being signed to Sub Pop all conspired to confine him to a category that shows up every year in the polls of the jazz magazine Downbeat, for which there really isn’t an official pop/rock equivalent: Talent Deserving Wider Recognition.
When the first album finally arrived, I was treated to even more pop perfection. The aforementioned “Fanfare” still sounded great, but its lustre was enhanced by songs that rocked and those that were most appropriate for one of my late-night, lights-out listening sessions: “Forging Plastic Pain,” “Fried Out Broken Girl,” “Faith to Clay,” “Lust Takes Time,” “Three Cornered Moon”—hell, the whole album was great.
There I was, in 2001, listening to music by an artist whose most recent recording was four years old. None of the web sites devoted to him that I could locate had been updated since 1999. When there was some recent news item, it almost always concerned speculation about a new album or, worse, the fear that Matthews might not ever release anything more. As the years dragged on, I started, sadly, to believe the second possibility. There was, to be sure, the occasional mention of his having contributed his instrumental and arranging skills to recordings by other artists whose work I’ve also come to love (e.g., Paco, Brookville and Tahiti 80). And the contributions of Jason Falkner to both of Matthews’ Sub Pop releases made me really excited about JF’s two solo releases: Presents Author Unknown and Can You Still Feel? And my excitement about them was both justified and rewarded. But I still wanted more from Matthews.
After hearing the radio show, Nate provided me some much-needed relief: the new and awkwardly titled album Six Kinds of Passion Looking for an Exit. It was in my mailbox at the office. I could hardly contain my excitement, but I managed to wait until I returned home to give it a listen. And I wasn’t disappointed. After the first listen, I’m inclined to think that “So Overblown,” “Underground Song,” “Do You Really Want It?” and “Cardinal Is More” will be in rotation for a long time, at least until Matthews releases another album. (“Cardinal Is More,” by the way, is a reflective take on M’s early, short-lived involvement with Cardinal, a band which also featured Richard Davies and Sebadoh drummer Bob Fay. The Matthews web site notes that he and Davies are working on reissuing the one album they managed to complete before falling victim to “creative differences” with bonus tracks.)
The upshot of all of this is that for the foreseeable future, I will be referring to Nate as “Saint Nate” or “Sir Nate.” If you know him and see him, I suggest you do the same.