Music

Matthew Ryan: Regret Over the Wires

Mitch Pugh

Matthew Ryan

Regret Over the Wires

Label: Hybrid Recordings
US Release Date: 2003-09-23
UK Release Date: Available as import
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"The little things, the little things mean everything", Matthew Ryan belts out on the second track of his latest effort, Regret Over the Wires. And do they ever.

This isn't your usual, dour Matthew Ryan.

This isn't his debut, 1997's May Day, full of brittle, dark, and sparsely accompanied poetry. It's not 2000's East Autumn Grin, more of a rocker but still with that same dreary outlook on things. Concussion (2001) did a lot to cement Ryan's place alongside the likes of Nick Drake, Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams, or Nebraska-period Bruce Springsteen, but its bleak, mid-tempo meanderings wore thin on repeated listens. He followed that up with two Internet-only releases -- Dissent from the Living Room and Hopeless to Hopeful -- that sounded scattered and rushed.

Of that prodigious catalogue, both May Day and Concussion had their moments. But nothing, it's safe to say, could have prepared us for the gem Ryan has delivered with Regret Over the Wires.

He's mostly abandoned that stripped-down, recorded-in-the-kitchen-with-a-broken-heart sound for a fuller, pop-influenced vibe that puts him comfortably alongside Joe Pernice and Josh Rouse. While not completely throwing out the baby with the bath water, he's augmented the things that have always been his strengths -- blue-collar, poetic songwriting and curious hooks -- with perfectly understated touches of dulcimer, mandolin, organ, cello, violin, and pedal steel. It's a more produced sound, but one that sounds completely organic -- like this is the way Matthew Ryan was supposed to sound all along.

It comes together nicely on the third track, "Trouble Doll", which showcases the more tender side of Ryan's lyrics with the help of Bucky Baxter on pedal steel. The music actually shimmers, an adjective that wouldn't have been caught dead next to Ryan's name prior to Regret over the Wires. And Ryan's songwriting is as good as it's ever been: "Salvation watches over you / Redemption only borrows you / A little at a time in this world".

On "Long Blvd.", Ryan achieves the sound the other Ryan (Adams) has been trying for since Heartbreaker. It's a heart-aching mix between the folky heritage of Dylan and modern rock. Yes, it borders on Goo Goo Dolls-esque cheesiness, but somehow it manages to transcend that. Maybe it's Matt Slocum's cello, or Molly Thomas and Aaron Till's violin. Or maybe it's even "littler" things than that. You'd be amazed what a tamborine (say thanks to David Bianco) can do for a song.

He sounds more like Pinkhearts-style R.A. on "I Can't Steal You" and "Come Home", but here it sounds like it should -- an anthem for a top-down drive along a deserted big city boulevard, the night swooshing past, as you mope in your own sorrow. It sounds pathetic, but it doesn't come out that way at all in Ryan's hands.

For those fans who miss the plaintive ballads of May Day or Concussion, Ryan offers up an ode in the very best of that tradition with "Every Good Thing". While a slow-mover, the hook is still infectious and Ryan's simple but emotional pulls on the guitar are deceptively clever. Originally titled "Songs for Sons", it's a father's wish for his son to have "every good thing": "I know you're sleepin' on rocks, where the temperature drops / What you thought it was, you know it's not / There's just so many things, that this living brings / Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it stings / Oh, my little man, try to understand / I never meant to set you up / I only wanted to protect you".

It's a song that still has somewhat dark, cynical outlook -- who else would wonder if birth is a set up? -- but it also shows something that Ryan seemed to be short on in previous records: hope. It may be a little thing, but it's something you never want to lose touch with -- in music or life.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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