After a protracted absence of over seven years, American original Eric Matthews finally returns to the musical scene in 2005 with a new mini-album of quality, lush orchestral pop that continues his unique musical legacy. The time away hasn’t translated into Matthews’ prolificacy; what you get here is quality, not quantity. Six Kinds of Passion Looking for an Exit is a seven song collection that runs a little over 33 minutes. Still, from the opening word, it’s a treat to hear that hushed, breathy voice back again, and with new material.
For those unfamiliar with Matthews, he made his debut in 1994 as half of the band Cardinal (along with Australian Richard Davies). They released one extraordinary eponymous album before splitting off into solo careers. Matthews went on to release two well-received collections on Sub Pop Records, 1995’s It’s Heavy in Here and 1997’s The Lateness of the Hour.
This Oregon native has always been in love with symphonic pop from the time he played trumpet in elementary school, adoring those from John Williams to Burt Bacharach to the Bee Gees and the Beach Boys. His music is the result of orchestral theory made real, taking his instrumental and compositional skills and creating ornate baroque compositions that are perfectly controlled, even as the soft vocals often sing lyrics of sensitive and moody reflections.
The current offering remains true to form. The new music is a little more guitar-based and mellow, with fewer horns perhaps than in past efforts, but the songs remain delicate portraits of inner musings: lush, carefully constructed soundscapes that might underwhelm at first listen, yet subtly mesmerize over time. Matthews is a master of romantic arrangement, and his spare placement of instruments allows ample space for the whispery double-tracked vocals to breathe. There’s always a sense of intelligent craft to his music, a sense that everything is just so for a reason.
The CD opens with “Worthy”, a gentle yet grand and poetic love song that heralds acceptance (“Going blind to my scars, seeing burns like best stars”) as well as distance (“walk away, you can see who you are”). While Matthews handles almost all the instruments throughout the album, Gregg Williams adds drums and Wes Matthews contributes a guitar solo to this track.
“So Overblown” is a six-minute soft pop epic featuring breathy lead vocals, sweet harmonies, piano, a haunting fuzzy lead guitar line (smooth as Larry Carlton) and more. I’m not quite sure what it’s about (an elicit affair, perhaps?), but it suggests one left behind for another: “Do you hear this cry through my tearless eyes / Haven’t seen many cast behind / If I were better designed and I could erase my mind / I might still be left behind”. This is exactly the type of well-crafted piece that is vintage Eric Matthews.
The album veers into personal confession territory with “Cardinal Is More” — a song of reconciliation sent out to former bandmate Richard Davies: “Cardinal was more than just a new band / Two men on an island / If memories run short, the legend grows silent”. Matthews pays tribute to Davies and his talents, even name-checking the Bee Gees as ones who would understand.
And speaking of Cardinal — thankfully, the rights to that earlier Cardinal music are now owned by Matthews and Davies again. As such, word is that the album has been remastered and soon will be re-released in the summer of 2005, featuring 11 previously unheard bonus tracks and additional liner notes better explaining what went into the creation of that record.
“Underground Song” is a somber slow-paced song that opens with a verse that ascends and descends melodically, then goes into another verse that is a direct melodic rip-off of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.” Yet, this is mesmerizing and affecting, a song about isolation (“I’m safe underground / Relief in no sound”) from “waters that hate me”.
The one relatively upbeat song in this batch is “Do You Really Want It?”, a song that sports an almost disco-backbeat behind a celebration of small shared events, a dialogue in a loving relationship. It sticks out as less weighty than the other tracks — shorter and more energetic — notable in that it captures Matthews in a rare optimistic mood.
The third epic track (at about six minutes) is another somber tale told, ironically entitled “You Will Be Happy”. Upon a friend’s grandfather’s death, Matthews is drawn to reflect on what comprised this man’s life from the time of his boyhood until “Age has crept in and done him in / Living long was his only sin / It’s all been done / He did it himself and won”. Again, this is well-done, and gains an almost hypnotic aspect upon repeated listens.
This CD ends with a glorious musing that seems (relative to the others) only a fragment of a song, but the two minutes of “Black to Light Brown” are a vibrant celebration, featuring Matthews’ bright trumpet lead-in, prominent bass lines, and Gregg Williams and Tony Lash on drums. It sort of fades and drifts off, leaving the listener still hungry.
While there aren’t any songs here that approach the past glory of “Fanfare”, it’s still very good to have the talented Eric Matthews back on disc, crafting painstakingly beautiful sounds that only he can manage to do so well. Six Kinds of Passion Looking for an Exit should whet the appetites of those who’ve long been awaiting new music — yet it won’t quite quell their desire for wanting more. This strong, brief collection of lush and spare confessional musings is a fine addition to the Matthews canon — here’s hoping we won’t have to wait so long for the next installment.