This male-female country-roots duo is at their best while exploring their diverse interests in blues and rock. When they try mainstream country? Not so great.
Striking Matches are the kind of Nashville-based duo whose official bio is defined by superficially disparate upbringings and a meet-cute tale worthy of a musical romantic comedy. Justin Davis grew up in Atlanta with parents who weren’t musicians, while Sarah Zimmerman was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia with a father who repaired instruments for a living. Both ended up attending Nashville’s private, expensive Belmont University and majoring in guitar, and lo and behold, struck up a productive partnership when they ended up paired together in a guitar class. Their songs have been featured on the television drama Nashville and they managed to get none other than Americana super-producer T Bone Burnett to record Nothing But the Silence, their debut full-length.
If I seem a bit cynical in reciting their origin story, it may be because “starry-eyed, attractive, upper middle class dreamers go to Nashville with the goal of breaking into the country/roots/bluegrass/Americana music industry and successfully break into that industry within a couple years” is an overly familiar one. In fact, we just finished hearing a variation on this story a scant two years ago, when the Civil Wars, another male-female duo who met in Nashville while trying to further their individual careers, broke up after releasing their second album.
Regardless of how they came together, though, Striking Matches’ first album is wide-ranging, full of confidence, and mostly fun. That sonic range reflects the current transition of the roots music genre, as it moves away from its early ‘10s Mumford-led acoustic fixation into more of an "anything goes" melting pot. Opener “Trouble is as Trouble Does” features Zimmerman and Davis trading verses about the disdain of their friends and family and harmonizing in the chorus about how in love they are with each other. Dueling acoustic guitars trade active licks over a simple kick-snare-tambourine beat, but it’s the bass that carries the melody in the song. The bluesy second track, “Make a Liar Out of Me” lopes along easily, with a catchy chorus and laid-back verses, but it ends with a noisy, squalling blues guitar solo that’s unexpectedly intense.
Other highlights include “Miss Me More”, an upbeat duet that with cheeky lyrics about which partner is gonna miss the other one. It’s driven by a chiming mandolin riff and solo that gives the song a lot of charm. “Missing You Tonight” successfully evokes an ‘80s blues-rock vibe so completely that it conjures images of rainy city streets, smokey bars with neon beer signs, and this guy from the “Love is a Battlefield” video. The very catchy “What a Broken Heart Feels Like” gets to its big sing along chorus in under 40 seconds and correctly leans on it to drive the whole song (that the chorus bears a close resemblance to the chorus of MAGIC!’s 2014 hit “Rude” may be an asset or detriment, depending on your tolerance level).
When Striking Matches are exploring more diverse territory, they’re at their most interesting. When their songs sit in the mainstream country pocket, they tend to run into songwriting trouble. “Nothing But the Silence” is a quiet ballad that gets slightly louder in the chorus but isn’t particularly affecting musically or lyrically. “When the Right One Comes Along” sounds like a TV executive’s ideal of a quiet country love song, which makes it no surprise that it was featured on Nashville. Only Zimmerman’s nicely affecting vocals keeps it from being entirely generic. Similarly, “Like Lovers” is so slow and tamped down from an instrumental standpoint (barely-there drums and bass, quietly reverbed electric guitar) that the focus is entirely on the vocals. Zimmerman and Davis sing and harmonize very well, but there’s so little in the melody or the lyrics that’s compelling that the song falls completely flat.
Because of Zimmerman and Davis’ varied musical interests -- and likely Burnett’s insistence on accentuating that variety -- Nothing But the Silence comes off as an album that effectively sits at the intersection of several genres. In a country market that has room for Eric Church’s hard rock and Sugarland’s reggae interludes, Striking Matches could theoretically break through into the mainstream. They could also find success in the smaller roots-rock arena, or they could just as easily fall through the cracks. But from strictly a musical standpoint, this is a strong debut record that still shows room for growth and maturation in Striking Matches’ future.