Matthew E. White Makes Regional Music
Matthew E. White, whose band opens for each of the Mountain Goats' four consecutive New York City shows this weekend (and who composed the horn arrangements for the new Goats album, Transcendental Youth), wrote a letter and slipped it into each vinyl copy of his debut album. "It is regional music," he writes about Big Inner, co-released in August by Hometapes and White's label, Spacebomb. He's referring to the fact that, of the 30-plus musicians who put their hands on Big Inner, all but four of those hands belong to musicians who, like him, are from Richmond, Virginia. "There may be 35 people playing at one time," says White, "but I know who's playing every note. This record sounds like Richmond, and it could've only been made in Richmond."
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For at least the past decade, when people think of Richmond music, they tend to think of metal-jokers Gwar and punk/hardcore bands like Avail and Strike Anywhere. Big Inner is a completely different beast; it is an album of painstakingly composed Southern pop music filled with elegant horns, colorful strings, uplifting choir crescendos and White's hushed, soulful and beatific singing. When I ask about the album's influences, White's quick to give props to Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and the music of Brazilian Tropicália artists like Jorge Ben (the ecstatic final track, "Brazos," borrows lyrics from a Ben tune). Also evident on Big Inner are traces of Dr. John, the Band, Brian Wilson, Allen Toussaint, Randy Newman and Curtis Mayfield. Of the song "Steady Pace," which has a laid-back, cool and rascally bounce like Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime," White says, "It's like a Meters thing, and then after the chorus it becomes a Jackson 5 thing." The numerous historical reference points are clear, but even clearer is that Big Inner's a Matthew E. White thing, and a Richmond thing--there's really nothing else in recent memory that sounds anything like it.
Though recorded in a two week period last year at Spacebomb Studios (A/K/A White's attic), Big Inner is a decade in the making. It's a product of multiple music scenes in Richmond coming together, in part because of the Patchwork Collective, a concert promoting organization White co-founded in the mid-2000s with the aim of building a united front from the city's disparate jazz, rock, folk and experimental music corners. While studying music at Virginia Commonwealth University, White and some fellow students started a band called the Great White Jenkins as an outlet for their more rock-oriented urges. White refers to that band, whose members all contributed in some way to the making of Big Inner, as the "skeleton" for the music he's making now.
When the Great White Jenkins dissolved around 2008, White created Fight The Big Bull, a large free-jazz ensemble that released a solid album called All is Gladness in the Kingdom on the venerable avant-jazz label Clean Feed in 2010. This band brought together some of the finest musicians from Richmond's small, but vibrant, jazz scene; all of them play on Big Inner--an album, White says, that he didn't initially intend to be the first Spacebomb release.