In between all the cliché it's hard work to pull out the sneaking unease that could have made Passing Strangers so much more interesting.
Scott Matthews, a singer-songwriter from Wolverhampton, England, is one of the hordes of earnest young men who'd like you to fall in love, please. Fall in love with his voice, with his earnest reprisal of the musical tropes of his idols. Fall in love with his take, as if it was the original one, on love and loneliness.
His quintessential song, the song you've heard if you've heard anything about Matthews, is called "Elusive". It won the 2007 Ivor Novello award for songwriting, a feat notable because it shares the honor with the lately rekindled 1969 hit, Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)". The song's by far the best on Matthews' debut. Delicate and subtle, its gorgeous melody floats easily on top of a vibraphone wash. If you listen to one song by Scott Matthews, this should be it. No surprise it's a radio hit.
Passing Strangers pulls in a wide variety of sounds over the course of its seventeen tracks, but each return eventually to the underlying roots/folk timbre. The compositions careen from mellow surf rock to Led Zeppelin-inspired upbeat rock and back to folk balladry with ease. It's clear that Matthews can skillfully assemble ideas into well-sustained pop songs, and has a knack for arrangements that bring in less often heard instruments like clarinet or tabla. However, some of his more mellow material, like "Eyes Wider than Before", ring a little hollow in the same way that Cat Empire's latest album turns funk into straight pop-rock.
Floating across all these various styles is Matthews' at once smooth and emotive voice. Yes, it shows glimpses of Jeff Buckley's catch-in-the-throat emotion, but it's not as powerful, and sits somewhere more mainstream: around the John Mayer level. But apart from "Elusive", Matthews uses his instrument differently than Buckley by throwing it out defiantly at the microphone, disregarding the harshness that creeps in at the loudest moments. He shares stylistic mannerisms with Roots' great vocalist Ben Harper (though without the same vivacity), or Xavier Rudd's strangulated grin. He reminded me most of Australian singer Josh Pyke, perhaps partly due to the fact that his compositions are as directionless, relying on imagery and instrumentation to create interest.
There are echoes of other artists through the whole of Passing Strangers. Tellingly, in my notes the format is most often: Like XXX but not as good. So with the beginning of "City Headache", which apes the chord progression from "Karma Police" but thankfully moves in a more modest direction, switching to a swung 3/4 time and covering Matthews' voice in a soft sheen. The singer's not subtle as the end of the track has twenty seconds of traffic noise just to nail home the point. But Damien Rice has proved the singer-songwriters need not greatly involve themselves with subtlety to find an audience.
In the end, Scott Matthews unfortunately comes off like a pretty vapid British appropriation of roots music. Sure, his mid-tempo orchestral songs are pretty enough. But in between all the cliché it's hard work to pull out the sneaking unease that could have made the singer's album so much more interesting.