Some music makes you feel like you are on a merry-go-round. It gently takes you in circles as you wave to your friends and family and try to catch the brass ring. Other songs let you see the world from the top of a Ferris wheel. You are safely ensconced behind the safety bar while looking down at the view. These rides may be fun but are safe as houses. Matthew E. White’s latest release, K Bay, puts you on a sonic roller coaster ride of ups and downs and dangerous curves. It’s a series of constant thrills. Something is disorienting about the whole experience. You keep thinking you will crash or fall, but somehow you arrive back at the beginning unscathed.
The press notes label White’s music as “retro-futurist magic tricks”. That seems an apt description of how White combines old-style soul, contemporary electronica, lyrical adventurism, funk beats, 1980s pop, disco sound effects, and orchestral tropes. The mix of old and new frequently clash with each other so that one never knows where a song will head next. One listens with one ear open awaiting the accident that never happens. That’s a strong part of the music’s attraction.
There is a cinematic sense to the material as well. The songs frequently begin and end like the opening/closing sequence of a movie, with the main action in between seemingly framed. On tracks such as “Genuine Hesitation”, “Nested”, and “Fell Like an Ax”, the songs’ borders enhance the emotional moodiness of the material’s contents and provide a cushion.
White sprays one-liners and epigrams that proffer mixed meanings: “I’ve been getting old since I was very young”, “When you say, “There’s nothin’ wrong with our instincts,” my hunch is that ain’t true”, “My vice is silence, it’s hard to tell because I talk too much.” There’s a verbal playfulness at the center of the songs that imply he has more questions than answers, or the koan-like questions themselves are the answers. Sometimes White can do this with just one word, such as “Judy”, whose meanings change with his intonations.
That doesn’t mean White is not serious. Midway through the album, he sings/speaks about racism on “Only in America” in a voice reminiscent of Randy Newman in its mix of patriotic schlock and absolute horror at our shared history. That serves as “When the Curtains of the Night Are Peeled Back’s” introduction, which delineates how the nation hides (“We’ve done our best to turn our back”) from the dark truth of bigotry. White names recent victims from Emmet Till to the present over a mournful instrumental accompaniment. The song was recorded before the death of George Floyd, although he certainly would belong on the list.
The 11 tracks on K Bay take us on a turbulent journey of sound and mind. This is more of a trip to the carnival than The Twilight Zone. The songs are stops along the midway of White’s mind rather than one’s imagination. He shows off his skills as a musician, writer, and producer and invites the listener along for the ride. When it’s over, one wants to go on again for kicks.