Matthew Ryan ambled on stage of the Tractor Tavern in Seattle looking more like an enlistee on leave, baggy cargo pants, fresh jarhead cut, a smoking 100 hanging from his lips, than the next Dylan or Springsteen or Waits, or whomever critics compared him to upon the occasion of his ‘96 debut, the gritty, melodic Mayday. The Tractor was the last stop on a short “acoustic trio” promo tour in support of his second release, East Autumn Grin, and a crowd of close to a hundred, about half of whom were there on A&M’s tab, if the doorman is to be believed, greeted him like an old friend as he found an ashtray and his guitar. For nearly two hours he made good on their expectations and his own press.
He finished the set with “Comfort,” a request from the crowd from his ‘96 record (by my accounting he performed half of Mayday and three quarters of the new one, adding a Waterboys cover for good measure), howling in his dusky rasp, “cause rock and roll, is dead, it’s dead.” With East Autumn Grin he’s either kicking the corpse or trying to resurrect it, depending on your aesthetic. Ryan and co-producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Giant Sand) have created a thick soundscape, layer upon layer of apocalyptic guitars, keyboards, synths, and strings, and only they know what all, roaring when laid over big shouldered rhythmic grooves (“3rd Of October,” “Heartache Weather”), moody when the grooves lope looselimbed (“Sadlylove,” “Still Part Two”). Think Daniel Lanois.
Curious strategy for a singer/songwriter with a lyric-driven rep, but I read somewhere Ryan wanted the music to express as much as the words this time out, to create “a collection of great moments.” A noble if grand intention, and when it works, as on “The World Is on Fire,” which tries to find the difference between American dreams and nightmares, needing all the luck it can get, it works. A piano plunks out the melody to “Camptown Races,” joined by a martial rhythm, cannon fire in the distance. The narrator spins a tale of sociopathic murder and heavily mediated voyeurism, chants of “America” above him on the choruses, the song building to a chaos of electric shards and feedback. Yeah, “America the Beautiful” all right, through a digital processor darkly, and not a ounce of irony.
It’s a tour de force of sound and sense, but stripped of the layers of studio effects, down to the rock ‘n’ roll bones of bass, drums, and a lone acoustic guitar, as it was from the stage at the Tractor, the song spoke for itself, and was every bit as riveting for the minimalism. With plenty of air for the melodies and words to breath, the same could be said for everything he played from East Autumn Grin, the songs about the complications of love (“Time and Time Only’) or the contradictions of history (“I Hear a Symphony”).
East Autumn Grin is likely to earn Ryan further kudos from tastemakers (“rock album of the year!”), and maybe it deserves them. But I wish they could have heard him perform “3rd of October” that night. Alone on stage, he took what sounds on record like a U2 outtake and played it with the kind of gentle force that no studio budget can buy. It was a “great moment.”