Matthew Good – Lights of Endangered Species (2011) – an album review

What would it take for you to give Matt Good another listen? If you like orchestral arrangements woven into your folk and aggressive alt rock music, it might just be this album.

tl;dr Version: Matt Good does an orchestral rock album. It’s a fascinating listen.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: This is a Matthew Good solo album. If you have never listened to a Matt Good solo album, you may not be prepared for Matt. He’s serious like a straight razor. Not necessarily at your throat, but certainly at your veins. He never apologizes for setting a dour, depressing tone.

Boring Version: Matt Good, whom I have been enjoying sporadically since the Matt Good Band days, has decided to switch things up a little, composing an album of songs that work well with some moderately light but effective orchestration. It’s not all symphonic arias or sonatas, to be sure. It’s still Matt Good, though some of the songs have a more composed, sophisticated structure to them than his standard rock or folk guitar numbers of yore. Matt has always dabbled with these kinds of structures, as if trying to confound his listeners, but here he is in full bloom. I haven’t played Vancouver, the last studio album he recorded, very recently, so I can’t swear to it, but it seems to me that Matt has been building towards this album for a long time. It’s not an easy listen that rewards on first listen, but it is an important album, I think.

The thing I won’t go into much detail on in this review is the lyrics, which does Matt a disservice, but is necessary, as I find this ‘listen as I write’ review format of mine doesn’t lend itself well to lyrical interpretation. If you have any doubt of where Matt’s great strength lies as a modern Canadian poet, in the vein of Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn, see if you can get ahold of the lyric sheet and give them a closer look for me. I couldn’t read them if I tried right now, given that it’s before dawn in early February, and I’m typing this in the dark… which does sort of put me in the right frame of mind for a Matt Good album, really.

Extraordinary Fades opens with a stark percussion section and is joined by strings, before Matt starts singing. It’s a short number, and you hardly have time to get settled into it and what promises to be a stark album before the song leaves you wanting something more, refusing to promise anything more. Stark promises. Fitting description.

How It Goes opens with acoustic guitar and woodwind section, Matt setting up the tune with a verse and chorus before the rhythm section joins in. When the drums and bass do join in, they’re polite, and yet the song does gain a bit of bounce. It’s not a party tune, but it has a definite calm strength. Matt’s turns of phrase are in fine form here, as he spells out the sadness of the world most of us live in without getting too bogged down in details. Some would call that overgeneralizing, but Matt’s got a proven track record of using fine detail and specific stories, so using names isn’t really called for here.

Shallow’s Low opens with a peculiar baby noise effect that is ushered out by a slow, sad guitar and Matt singing in low register. This is one of his bluesiest pieces, particularly when the lead guitar starts in. There’s trumpet and xylophone in the instrumental section, and as that section ends, a brushed snare pattern ushers in a more energetic second section, joined by piano, bass and horns, which sounds a little bit like Polyphonic Spree without vocals, until the rock guitar starts wailing over top and it turns most decidedly into a rock tune, though a moody one, and finally it all quietens down to that strange baby noise from the opening, keyboard string pad and piano closing the tune.

What If I Can’t See The Stars Mildred opens with piano and bass, and Matt in rant mode. You can taste the invective coming even before the drums and guitars join in, giving us perhaps our first true rock song of the album. No surprise to Matt Good fans, but it is not a happy rock song. The song goes back to the piano and bass for the next verse, drums playing at that slow pace called out in the first verse, hammond organ quietly whirling about in the background, a moment’s silence, and then the guitar comes back, reaching an almost anthemic level of rock groove. It’s got something, though it’s hard to explain, because it’s a somewhat complex piece that doesn’t want to be taken as entertainment. It’s moro about tension and release than pure rock. The song finishes on the piano, and then is gone. I wish I could explain how that effects you, instead of just stating it. The effect is interesting.

Zero Orchestra is a big, slightly bouncy, slightly jazzy rock tune with piano, a big horn section and drums thick enough to drown a family with. Matt’s singing angry again, though he gives the music enough space to breathe this time around. It’s not precisely a radio friendly number, but it wouldn’t do too bad if it were released. It’s not a barrel of fun, but it’s deceptively accessible, which can’t be said for much of Matt’s music in recent years.

Non Populus takes us back to plaintive piano chords chiming in time to the metronomic rhythm of the water drop tapping of the hi-hat, and then the drums take us into a more energetic passage. Matt is singing in low register here, chorused slightly with a minor key harmony, and then some growling, crying guitar takes us to a quite section where it’s just piano and rock organ quietly painting a mood of striding forward through pain. Some vibes are shortly joined by bass, drums and rock guitar wailing and railing for a moment. This again leads back to a moment of silent contemplation on piano, Matt singing, first alone, and then in harmony with a lovely female voice. This too changes as an acoustic guitar blues solo leads to another section of rock instrumentation augmented with some strings and various bits of subtle percussion. It has to be said that this is perhaps the most carefully, densely arranged number I’ve heard from Matt in… you know, I’m not sure if he’s ever done a number this dense. I like it, but it’s a strange piece for Matt.

In A Place of Lesser Men opens with almost jaunty piano and vocals, and is joined by drums and little drops of electric guitar. It’s an interesting, Beatlesque number, grafting a Matt Good lyric onto  a tune reminiscent of Cry Baby Cry from the White Album, which works surprisingly well, even as the arrangement grows thicker and takes on an almost U2 feel. The guitar is also reminiscent of George Harrison, bringing us back to Beatle territory. Short, sweet and to the point.

Set Me On Fire opens with an almost Dave Gilmour acoustic guitar passage, slow, moody, the perfect stage for another dark musing by Matt, singing about the low life in a dingy bar in a dying town. There’s a girl there who clearly isn’t happy, since it’s she who utters the title. The guitars are joined by orchestration before the rock arrangement joins that, and the tune grows from there. The second verse is still slow and magisterial, but with the full orchestral and rock arrangement in place, it climbs to another level. The bridge features Matt and his acoustic, but is joined by a heavily effected reverb piano, which then gets the orchestral horn section and drums, just before the song closes.

Lights of Endangered Species opens with low horns (tuba, sousaphone, that sort of thing) and sparse piano, before Matt joins in, singing about some sort of circus sideshow involving a magician and an assistant being cut in half. There’s more to it than that, as there always is with Matt’s lyrics. The horns are joined by rock instrumentation and Matt gets a bit angry, but the chorus seems to be more about our guy observing and caring for some girl who clearly isn’t making things easy. The song builds with the pace of a glacier, and then dives back down into near silence, horns keening low as Matt sings with himself, painting an image I’m having a little trouble processing with repetitions of the last line of the song, and piano quietly escorts the tune and the album to a close.

Actually, I need to listen to this album a few more times to make a final statement on it. I fear that it might not have gotten the attention it deserved, as I remember hearing very little about the album last year. I don’t really circulate through the fandom, though I do consider myself more than a casual fan. In many ways, Matt and I are kindred spirits, and I feel as if he’s saved me a lot of trouble writing these songs myself. He suffers with his mental state while I anesthetize mine with prescription medication and try to gain some semblance of a normal life, to varying effect. I’m not sure which one of us has the right of it, but Matt’s reports seem to confirm that he is getting somewhere with it all. This pleases me.

I’m probably going to go back and listen to some of the older albums and work my way back up to this one, just to see if I can spot the threads. Meanwhile, if you’re short on time, put this album back on and listen again, just to see if it creeps up on you the way I suspect it will on me.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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