Following the more hushed acoustics of his last two releases, Matthew Barbers enters the electric fray with his major label debut LP. And though there are still trace amounts of those quiet numbers, the drive of Sweet Nothing is in the gas pedal. Gaining momentum from likeable vocals and conventional rock songwriting, Barber and his band, the Union Dues, rev up the charm factor and narrowly escape the corny. With help from members of Metric and Stars and his sister Jill Barber, Matthew Barber has crafted a significantly enjoyable album. This is good clean pop rock.
For all intents and purposes, I should hate this album. I don’t though, no matter how much I try to rationalize its deficiencies. In the face of sugared melodies and bland lyrics I find continued pleasure in listening to Sweet Nothing. Maybe it’s because it stirs the same quaint sentimentality that Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever stirred up 15 years ago. I still hold on tightly to that tape and somehow I doubt Barber’s quiet gem will make the trip to the used record store anytime soon.
Like Tom Petty or the Traveling Wilburys, Matthew Barber plays tender back porch rock ‘n’ roll. Not that Barber is alone in his contemporary pursuit of the simple folk rock anthem. But unlike most of the guitar-slinging cads on popular radio today, he avoids sounding self-important or backward. His songs are modest and rollicking and don’t overstep their effectiveness. From the acoustic balladry of “Water from a Tap” to the pumping on your stereo vibe of “Soft One”, Barber plays within his means.
It is a small wonder that Sweet Nothing manages to maintain an agreeable note throughout. Barber’s tunes are often one half step away from the cornfield, but since it’s all so unassuming, the mush is usually tolerable. Most of the time the banal lyrics are incidental, but occasionally the clichés are overwhelming. The importance Barber places on the rhyme can sometimes overpower a song’s charm. “The Plea”, for instance, is a pleasingly little faux soul ditty that is almost ruined by its silly chorus, “don’t lie to me don’t lie to me/ I’m innocent your guilty”. Barber does not pay any effort toward making this record sound cool or innovative. He knows he’s doing what an infinite number have already attempted, but he does it pretty well anyhow.
On the wonderful creeper “Easy to Fall” Barber himself acknowledges the perils of his well-trodden path, “I bet you heard another ditty with these chords/ I don’t give a shit now everything’s been done/ All that matters is that you do it and you have a little fun”. The unadorned simplicity of the song is typical of the entire album and a strong indication of the honesty of Barber’s motivation. He is a singer-songwriter in that purest sense. Like Springsteen or Springfield, Matt Barber builds his songs from humanist and populist foundations.
Considering that long-established framework, it’s very likely that Barber and the Union Dues will be winning hearts across North America. And I guess it’s no shock that “Like Lightning” got my two-year-old niece rocking in her car seat, despite the fact that she’s more of a reggae fan. So just as Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever had me singing along with my parents on road trips from Ontario to Florida, Matthew Barber’s music is bound to produce some familial rock outs.
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