Written by: Dave Cantrell
Feeling both ahead and behind a schedule that in large part doesn’t even exist – for this writer, never has the title of Elvis Costello’s “Man Out of Time” felt more accurate – we here at Stereo Embers, like most of you we suspect, are playing a random, scattershot version of catch-as-catch-can when it comes to, well, life in general but more specifically in our case, album reviews.
Now, to be honest, that’s not exactly a status that requires the calendar-shredding effect of a shelter-in-place lockdown for us to find ourselves in – albums arrive amidst enough of a swirl in ‘normal’ life to make decent coverage a challenge – but from what we’ve been able to tell, nearly everyone finds themselves, in their own way, seized by the paralysis of an enforced immobility. Stated in “Wizard of Oz” terms, that tornado that displaced our dear Dorothy is, in our current pandemic context, fueled by the fierce winds of nothingness that keep dropping us into the dry barren fields of a place called Anomie.
But really, enough is enough, the time has come to rally, shake off our torpor, gather our wits and words about us and get to it. Welcome, then, to Quarantine Age Kicks, where your correspondent is metaphorically (and to some extent literally) locked in a room with just himself and his thoughts on a stack of recent and/or upcoming releases. Which also, come to think of it, doesn’t sound so different from how it’s ever been but oh my hell is it different, so SO different. Anyway, if you would, have a read, give a listen, support the artists when able. Thank you.
Matt Wilson & His Orchestra “When I was a writer” on Pravda Records
It’s nice, we think, that even in the midst of pandemic-imposed isolation, when every day presents as another stultifying episode of “What the Fuck Do We Do Now?”, that life can still offer up surprises. An unexpected call from a friend you haven’t had an IRL conversation with in years, finding a book you forgot you had that you’re now consuming nightly, or, if you’re a Trip Shakespeare fan, hearing this new(-ish; released March 20th on Pravda) album from that bright, MTV-era rock band’s mainstay Matt Wilson.
Where that Minneapolis-based band staked its claim along a fertile furrow running midway between, say, Timbuk 3 and the Replacements, the work here on When I was a writer, attributed to Matt Wilson & His Orchestra, hews toward a more subdued, appealingly less technicolor palette, resulting in a complete-feeling record that’s gorgeously understated to the point of being quietly profound without sacrificing a mite of the spritely, often wryly humorous intelligence – lyrical as well as structural – that marked out Wilson’s tenure as a Trip Shakespearean.
A primary driver of writer‘s mellowed tenor (and indeed ‘a driven mellowness’ would be an apt oxymoron to apply to this record) is in no small measure the prominent presence throughout of Phala Tracy’s harp and Quillan Roe’s stippling banjo work. Though the chicken-and-egg dynamic isn’t known – whether these songs were conceived with those somewhat unorthodox instruments in mind or were reshaped in the studio once subjected to the pluck and sweep of them – the results are something of a heaven-made match, one only further enhanced by the addition of overall guitar maestro Jacques Wait on bass. It’s difficult to imagine a more ideal complement not only to the half-hopeful, half world-weary bent of these songs but as well to Wilson’s voice, a voice that, as often as not, seems imbued with that same duality.
Be it the baleful luminescence of the opening title track, the klepto love song “Petty Thief” that can’t quite decide if it’s funny or sad and is therefore decidedly both, “Real Life”‘s plucky existential resignation where the symbiotic tension of the banjo/harp combo might be at its most expressive, or the gently disturbed vignette “Mental Patients” – also, it should be said, a quite loving love song – the perspective here is one of a wide-eyed perplexity that often borders on cynicism but just as often borders on a precious embrace of all that is dear about this life. In a sense like an upper midwest-bred, mid-period Elvis Costell0 (“Decent Guy” especially prompts that thought), the cleverness Wilson cannot help but animate his lyrics with is innately counterweighted by minor chords of regret that he seems equally unable to resist.
Which is to say, When I was a writer is filled with songs of spring sung in a crisp autumnal mood and thus has a kind of scrapbook immediacy to it that makes it one of those quietly assured keeper gems that we’re forever grateful to for having crossed our path.