[12 September 2006]
It’s okay to be a little suspicious of any pop-rock artist that titles his album after a book by composer Aaron Copland. Yet this is exactly what Eric Matthews has done with Foundation Sounds. Copland’s phrase, as Matthews explains it in the liner notes, refers to “what some of us consider the core of the orchestral sound, the string section, what he termed foundation sounds.” Of course, Matthews is not an orchestral composer, at least not along the lines of a Copland or a John Williams. Nevertheless, he is driven to discover the core of his own work. “I intend to, over a period of years, attempt to establish what my foundation sounds are,” he says later in the notes.
It’s not entirely clear what Matthews’ sounds are. But the un-rock and roll name of Burt Bacharach enters into the picture, as does the more string arrangement-conscience Brian Wilson. In other words, Foundation Sounds makes you wonder if Matthews ever liked a screaming rock record at all—even just one. Brian Wilson called his work “teenage symphonies to God,” and the same could be said of Matthews’ recordings.
This is the first album Matthews played each and every instrument on. (Well, there’s one exception. Ms. Dolly Mixture performs the clarinet passage on “Start of the Meltdown.”) Most all of these musical pieces are pictured in a liner notes’ photo. They include various guitars, keyboards, drums, and even a flugelhorn. As Matthews explains it, a few of his heroes, like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, also played the one-man-band at least once, too. He’s not a master instrumentalist like Wonder, nor is he as melodically inventive as McCartney, but the quality doesn’t suffer from the do-it-yourself approach.
For all the prettiness in the music, there sure is a lot of ugly anger in Matthews’ vocal tone. He’s especially pissed-off during “Survive”. In it he states, “that was the last time I’d listen to people I despise.” His bad attitude gets old, however, and fast. On “Sorry” he apologizes: “Am I speaking loudly, angrily my sunshine? / Do I offend? / Have I fractured us again?” He also quotes an old psychedelic song when he sings, “had to much to dream last night,” during “Sorry”. At least he gets distracted momentarily by thoughts about aliens from outer space with “Watch The Sky”. In this one he’s not lashing back at anybody.
Another song that stands out as something good—among an otherwise dreary collection—is “All That Remains”. It’s a fascinating character study about an intriguing woman. It makes the listener want to know more about her.
One factor that annoys more than anything else is Matthews’ voice. It’s thin and breathy, and downright pretentious. It’s as if everything he sings is supposed to be listened to like the reading of Holy Scripture. There’s no humor, no irony. It’s all drama, all seriousness.
There are plenty of Matthews fans that aren’t bothered by his pretentiousness. To these, he represents the ultimate in perfect pop. These fanatics will have a completely different read on Foundation Sounds, I suppose. It’s a professional effort, if nothing else, with complexly layered instrumentation. But I’ll take a Bacharach/David song, sung by someone like Dionne Warwick, over Matthews’ music any old day of the week. There’s so much more to Warwick than those cheesy Psychic Friends Network appearances, you know. Great songs like “Don’t Make Me Over”, “Walk on By”, and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” get to me every time. Heck, I’ll even take “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” over much of the cold music Matthews is making now.
Aaron Copland had some innovative ideas about music composition, yet these thoughts do not always translate to pop music. If you get off on the link between Copland and Matthews, then more power to ya! But I’d rather build my house on good old solid rock (and roll), instead of Eric Matthews’ Foundation Sounds.