It would be easy to judge John Matthias** by association. Since venturing out with po-faced Radiohead vanguard Thom Yorke in an Exeter university-days band, the prodigious multi-instrumentalist has gone on to work with Coldcut, Lunatic Calm, The Blue Aeroplanes and the ridiculously talented Matthew Herbert, not to mention scoring a guest appearance on his former cohort’s seminal album The Bends. Yet Matthias displays few of his much admired collaborators traits; he is neither pioneering forbearer of electronica nor is he abrasive, nonconforming rock delegate.
What Matthias is: a teller of stories, an idealist who uses the real world as the source of inspiration for sonic creationism. But his is not the dreary minutiae of lads-getting-lairy-on-a-Saturday-night shite Arctic Monkeys and those subsequently spawned dangleberry bands churn out as rank-rotten high street store fodder. No, his craftings reflect upon the misgivings of society through a tapestry of articulate narratives woven skillfully between evocative swathes of intricate melody.
Such a prelude may imply Matthias’ latest long-player Stories From The Watercooler is cut from the same politicised cloth as offerings by the likes of Bragg or Dylan, yet Matthias has no high-horse to straddle, no soap-box to stand – he just calls it as he sees it, plain and simple. Yes, this is a record embedded in the traditions of folk, both lyrically and musically, but rather than sticking to the genre’s organic roots it garners a more urbanised vision, using sprawls of transient, city-slicking synths as a backbone to Matthias’ brittle upfront acoustics. And, more often than not, it works.
It's the structural simplicity of …From The Watercooler _that strikes listening ears first. Produced by Coldcut’s Matt Black and Jonathan More, the vast majority of tracks ease in with sparsely strummed lilts that escalate as a climax of floating keys and bulbous bass. Early numbers _‘Open’ and the media baiting ‘Vipers Nest’ pertain rigidly to this thoughtfully constructed pathway, using Matthias’ nasal tone – reminiscent of Alfie’s Lee Gorton in its sleight-handed reticence – to entice and seduce before filtering through a series of septic-tank synths that thicken each threadbare cut with a sinister, eerie edge that’s both enthralling of sound and riveting of dialogue.
Continued throughout, this architectural approach to song structure is a beatific pillar upon which the lucid creeping of ‘Evermore’ and ‘Stocktaking’’s plaintive, slowburning strums rest. But when relinquished from his self-tailored shackles Matthias appears short on options, leaving the insipid ‘Blind Leading The Blind’ to thrust limply like Gary Numan after a midnight rendezvous with The Mighty Boosh, while the squalid gutter-rock of ‘Spinnaker’ masquerades as a decrepit Wolfman cast off, minus only the skaggy-eyed hangers on.
Thankfully, the record’s lyrical dexterity more than compensates for this brace of incredulous dirge, with Matthias excavating a glutton of cultural crevices - from a civilian’s take on illegal invasions (‘One Sunny Morning In The No Fly Zone’) to the displacement of new money luvvies in London (‘King Of A Small Town’) – through his sharp-slicing trowel of a tongue. And from these rich visualisations comes ...From The Watercooler's pulse-stopping pivot, the astonishing ‘Stockwell Rd’. A world-weary canticle blessed with tender ivory keys and sympathetic strings, the brittle-boned track has Matthias mulling over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes as he re-walks the Brazilian’s final steps each morning.
It’s a truly remarkable moment of attention-standing poignancy and one that defines a record bulging with intrigue and promise. The execution may not be triggered with the quite the same poise of his many ex-conspirators but with Stories From The Watercooler John Matthias proves, beyond all reasonable doubt, that he’ll never be found guilty by association.
7Billy Hamilton's Score