Written by: Dave Cantrell
While it’s not as easy to hear the spook and scrape of Matteah Baim’s early ‘soft metal’ band Metallic Falcons in her new album Falling Theater (just out on Dream Drive Records and available here), it is quite clear that a broad artistry informs her experience so it comes as no surprise to find out that she graduated from San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts with a degree in painting and drawing. The eight pieces here, meant to invoke the decaying luxury of America’s pre-WWII movie theaters, reflect an artist’s eye transferred to sound. Similarly unsurprising is her recent creative dalliance with – and subsequent assistance here from – Antony and the Johnsons, as a sympathetic aching melancholia presides. Add in a frequent whisper of sub-smoky jazz tonalities (not to mention the sublimely unobtrusive contributions as well from members of Au Revoir Simone, MGMT’s James Richardson, the New York Philharmonic, and the Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem) and you end up with a record that will live with you for a very long time.
The opening “Blossom,” with its sultry symphonic sound, crepuscular and suggestive of a more wistfully romantic time, as if we’re living through a somewhat darkly-tinted version of Umbrellas of Cherbourg, evokes last year’s splendid Pillars and Tongues album with subtly glowing orchestration (tip our hat right here and now to arranger and Antony member Maxim Moston) that hangs a delicate mystery over the proceedings. “Good For Two,” spare and cymbal-brushed, has a Serge Gainsbourg finesse flirting with it, Baim’s vocal settling in to the gently determined plaint of the wishfully thinking, the certainly unrequited hoping against honest hope like any faithful romantic should.
Baim’s phrasing throughout Falling Theater, while never calling attention to itself, is nonetheless a marvel, exhibiting an understated sureness that meets this material in a seamless embrace. In places one hears the watercolorist, in others the charcoal artist’s meticulous shading, while emotionally these pieces tend to be rendered in the richer hues and textures of an oil painting, the vivid dream of life in full view.
On the lovely, downtempo “Dude,” a short disquisition on the sort of guy, rarely met any more in everyday life, a “kindhearted person,” the singer’s voice nestles into the arrangement as if it’s a human woodwind, the lines – short and simple and elegantly to the point – presented with their own acoustic grace. On closer “Blindman’s Hands” it’s at first difficult to determine whether that’s Baim’s voice or a gently pulsing synth on loan from the Blue Nile. Though indeed a keyboard, when Matteah’s voice does come into the mix well past two minutes in it only proves how reasonable that uncertainty had been.
A compelling record, both mellow and mildly unsettling – the lullaby-like “All Night,” all bathed in a ghostly nightmarishishness that’s oddly comforting, is a prime but not unusual example – sometimes mournfully poignant – “Peach Tree” – sometimes bordering on avant-folk with strings – “Familiar Way” – Falling Theater is held together by the suite-resembling nature of its arrangements and, frankly, by the unwavering artistry of Matteah Baim’s voice, both in word and voice. Given the tenor of the material, the risk with this sort of project would be how easily it might tip over into the pallid and the record comes close on “Old Song” that, though not without its own plucked beauty, is slightly too slight to carry its feathery lightness to a full-blown melody. That that’s the only instance – and it’s a qualified one – makes for a minor miracle, makes it just the sort of out-of-the-way surprise gem we at CITC delight in making you aware of. Have a listen to “Dude” below, and consider yourself turned on.