The Lateness of the Hour
(Sub Pop Records)
Eric Matthews should be a major artist.
He has all the credentials for critical deification. He's a smart, young, classically trained singer/songwriter with an uncommon flair for arranging string and horn sections.
Word has it that his mental pitchfork is so impeccable that he double-tracks his vocals without hearing the first track. As his interviews reveal, he's also possessed of a major ego and a streak of self-righteousness.
Matthews contends that most contemporary music is junk--he's got a point there--and that he's providing some desperately needed nourishment for famished souls.
"Fanfare," the opening track on Matthews' 1995 debut album, It's Heavy in Here, suggested that he was up to the task. Ushered in by regal "Penny Lane" horns, "Fanfare" steadily built to a majestic pop climax, and exploited Matthews' major gifts: facility on both guitar and trumpet, and a willingness to synthesize English psychedelia with American pop craftsmanship.
Unfortunately, Matthews spent the rest of It's Heavy in Here revealing his weaknesses: a wispy voice, a bad, teen-diary approach to lyrics, and songs that threatened to, but only rarely, kick in.
With The Lateness of the Hour, Matthews takes a substantial step forward. The bold juxtaposition of instruments hinted at on Heavy bursts into full Technicolor splendor here. Brushes of acoustic guitar give way to harpsichords and take flight on the wings of soprano sax and trumpets. On "To Clear the Air," he discards rock instrumentation altogether, delivering a stately string-quartet minuet.
It's obvious that Matthews fancies himself a Burt Bacharach or Brian Wilson for the '90s. However, he possesses neither songwriter's knack for memorable melody lines, and he doesn't have Bacharach's good sense to seek sturdier voices than his own for his material.
In a way, Matthews most closely recalls Love's Arthur Lee, a warped baroque-pop auteur who perpetually walked the tightrope between annoying preciousness and mad genius. When Matthews connects, as on the dreamy "Ideas That Died That Day" or the trumpet showcase "No Gnashing Teeth," he sounds every bit the refreshing antidote to grunge that he wants to be.
But unlike Lee, whose songs at least meant something to him, Matthews' tunes are about nothing, and offer no semblance of a point of view. He's the Alan Rudolph of pop music, a master of mood who doesn't know where to take you once he grabs your attention.
Until--or unless--Matthews deepens his grasp of songwriting, he will remain an artist only a music professor could love. Like the lottery draft pick who's a can't-miss on paper but a bust on the court, Matthews invites much curiosity and frustration. The advances evident on The Lateness of the Hour only confirm his place as pop's most impressive failure.
My complexion is glowing like porcelain. Old girlfriends are phoning years after destroying my life to say they might've been a bit hasty. I reach into my pockets and crisp dollar bills always seem there for the taking. As part of their 12-Step recovery programs, schoolyard bullies who tormented me are wiring back the money they took with accrued interest. There's a goddamned bluebird on my window sill every morning, for crying out loud!
All of a sudden, life is a gas, and all because I decided my patronage of Morrissey has finally ended with this inexcusably dull new LP! Somebody pinch me!
It's gotten appreciably harder defending maudlin Mo, now three duff albums removed from his last truly great work Vauxhall and I. Where once his bed-sit depressions were a right laff, he seems to have lost his sense of humor completely, unless "Papa Jack" is a satirical attempt at writing a heavy-handed social-commentary song on the order of Jon Bon Jovi ("There was a time when the kids reached up and Papa Jack pushed them away").
Nothing approaches the luster of yore until "Roy's Keen," a song about a loyal window cleaner out of whose behind the sun no doubt shines for ol' Morrissey ("We've never seen a keener window cleaner/He can hold a smile for as long as you require, even longer"). And it's not hard to imagine "Satan Rejected My Soul" on a Smiths single, though it'd probably see duty as an excellent B-side. But it's tough sledding elsewhere, and we're momentarily spared from hearing more shopworn Morrissey melodies when he recites "Sorrow Will Come in the End," a barbed attack on the judicial system that could do for him what "On the Day We Fall in Love" did for Davy Jones!
Morrissey's sung all the notes collected here on far better material, but you'll have to ferret out those recordings on your own. Heaven knows I'm not miserable now, and the novelty of acceptance by my peers hasn't worn off yet.
Seen a Ghost
Guitar pop doesn't come any better than "Rumor Has It," the leadoff track on Seen a Ghost, the third album--and major-label debut--from Minneapolis quartet the Honeydogs.
Fusing a heartland groove to a guitar lick taken from the James Bond theme "You Only Live Twice," adding some Westerbergian word play and traces of Elvis Costello melodicism, the Honeydogs effortlessly concoct the kind of heady brew that many of pop's mad scientists spend countless hours laboring in vain to achieve.
Rootsy without being retro, poppy without being cutesy, and punky without being snotty, the Honeydogs is one of those rare bands that makes everything it touches likable. Much credit goes to singer/guitarist Adam Levy, whose loose, confident vocals find the emotional center of each song, whether he's dealing with the wreckage of a breakup on "Those Things Are Hers" or the hopeful court-and-spark of "Your Blue Door" (the best Michael Penn song he never wrote). Levy's bandmates follow suit, rocking out with a clean, unaffected grace, and helping to make Seen a Ghost one of the most irresistible albums of the year.
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