Tuesday, May 27, 2014

album review: 'with love from brushy mountain' by matt woods

I think it's safe to say that any critic of any stripe has pet peeves of some kind. For me, almost two hundred reviews in, they should be obvious for any long time viewer. I don't like Autotune or reverb used when it's not needed, I don't like it when rappers rhyme words with themselves, I find unjustified macho posturing to get tiresome, I goddamn hate the chipmunk voice effect, you get the drill.

But believe it or not, there are also a few elements that will tend to win me over almost immediately when it comes to music - if you're looking for areas that some would brand as 'bias', it'd be here. Musically, it comes to well-composed melody lines, rollicking guitar riffs, organ riffs, that peculiar synthesizer tone that Arjen Lucassen uses on nearly all of his projects, well-harmonized vocals, a perfectly executed dramatic crescendo, you get the picture. But beyond that, there are subjects that tend to draw my attention as well, both within and across genres.

And a decidedly odd one is the presence of prisons in country music. Brought most to the forefront by Johnny Cash with his legendary live album At Folsom Prison, to me it strikes a potent balance between the rough-edged flavour of outlaw country and the confrontations of morality and often mortality that rest at the heart of the genre's best material. Maybe it's the addition of real consequences that adds dramatic stakes, but if I hear about a record featuring prisons prominently in country music, more often than not I'm going to dig it up. 

So when the country underground started to buzz about the new album from relative unknown Matt Woods titled With Love From Brushy Mountain, named for a famous penitentiary that once housed the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., I knew I had to check it out eventually. Tennessee native Matt Woods was a relative unknown until his breakout single release last year with 'Deadman's Blues' - was there any way he could live up to the acclaim that song got?

Well, not quite, but that doesn't mean the album isn't still very much worth your time. And though With Love From Brushy Mountain doesn't quite go for the pitch-black exploration of the prison in the way I was hoping, it's still a pretty damn good country album, standing out best in the songwriting. But even though I'm going to recommend this album, it really does hinge on one defining element that will definitely sway you one way or another, which for me means I like it a little less than I'd normally prefer.

So let's start with the unquestioned good part of this album: the songwriting. On a technical level, it's not complex, but it's certainly well-structured and has an level of detail and colour that reflects very real experiences. Most of the best punchlines of the songs aren't particularly intricate, often working on simple plays on words, and the symbolism is easy to follow, but the parallelism drawn across the songs works pretty damn effectively. Take 'Snack Bar Mary and the Ten Pin Priest' - the song on a simple level is describing their growing concerns that the world is disappearing beneath them, and it paints a very vivid - and likely all too real - picture of vanishing rural communities. 'Drinking To Forget' takes our narrator trying to get over his hangover and bad decisions the night before by drinking more - and he's not the only one. What's telling about these songs is a sense of abandonment and subtle loneliness, because Matt Woods' drinking songs aren't really a celebration but a resigned 'what the hell else am I to do'. And on the best songs of this album, that loneliness takes center stage, in the raw self-flagellation of 'Deadman's Blues', the aching sadness in 'Tiny Anchors' where the girl wants to leave but feels held back by so many little things including Woods' desperate pleas, and the wistful moment of regret that comes at the end of the one-night stand in 'Lying on the Floor'. And yes, I did get my prison song in the title track, and while I'm a little annoyed there's only one, it's pretty damn solid on its own.

I do wish the instrumentation was as textured and nuance as the songwriting, though. Yes, there's significantly more texture than most mainstream country, and I like both the effective hooks and the heavy yet careful strumming that gives this album some weight, but at the same time, I do wish the instrumentation had a little more rough texture and flavour. Most of it feels very much in the wheelhouse of neotraditional country, with only hints of picked banjo and occasional rumbles of rougher distortion, and most of the melody lines are very clearly in service of getting back to the hooks as quickly as possible. Now that's not a bad thing - Woods' melodic hooks are the best part of this album, but we don't really get many distinguishing moments instrumentally to make this album stand out. On top of that, the production does feel a little flat and small, especially with the solitary female backing vocalist, and while it does fit most of the instrumental tones, it does feel a little claustrophobic for some of the bigger stakes and drama that Matt Woods tries to evoke through his delivery.

And this brings us to the element that I can tell you will make or break your opinion on Matt Woods: his voice. And you know, I don't think he's a bad singer per se - he has a ton of emotion, and you can hear him working his ass off to sell every single line. His voice, in fact, reminds me a lot of a combination of Meat Loaf and Steven Page, formerly of the Barenaked Ladies - and let's get one thing clear, I love both of those guys. But at the same time, I'm also aware of their flaws as singers, that Meat Loaf's over-singing can make some songs a little difficult to tolerate or take seriously, and that Page's vocals can get really grating in his upper range if he's not putting visceral passion in his voice. And both problems crop up for Woods - in short, there are points on this album where he tries to force the emotion or the country 'atmosphere' of the songs instead of letting it come naturally, which can lead to his delivery coming across more broad than it should. And what's worse is that when combined with broader songs like 'Liberty Bell', 'West Texas Wind', and 'Real Hard Times', it can come across as a little too hokey, even for me.

But you know, that's not a breaking point for me, and thus I'm happy to recommend With Love From Brushy Mountain by Matt Woods with a 7/10. Look, if you're looking for alternative country, I can't say this is the best record that's been released thus far this year -  it's likely going to get overshadowed for me by Sundy Best, Jason Eady, Sturgill Simpson, and Karen Jonas - but that's not saying this guy isn't worth your time. As I said, your liking/disliking for this guy is likely going to come down to his voice, but give him a look regardless - he might just surprise you.

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