Matthew E White’s roots are in knee-deep in the lush orchestrated soul of the early 70s. However, the 32-year-old Virginian songwriter – producer’s gentle mutter is much closer to the economic vocal expressions of fellow vintage soul enthusiast Kurt Wagner (Lambchop) than the effortless virtuosity of Curtis Mayfield, Al Green or Marvin Gaye.
In studio, the shortcomings in the singing department hardly matter. In fact, White’s dreamy, whispery voice provides a compelling counterpoint to the sumptuous aural upholstery that taps into just about any conceivable element (Fender Rhodes, choirs, strings, brass) in a campaign to conjure a very convincing and, crucially, fresh and unique 21st century configuration of the Spacebomb Studio founder’s vintage, soulful inspirations.
During the opening stages of tonight’s set, the barely audible vocals make it easy for attention to wonder. It can also mess badly with White’s lyrics. The refrain “love is deep s***” makes perfect, heartfelt sense in the context of Love Is Deep, one of new album Fresh Blood’s most sparkling workouts, but it becomes unfairly comical when heard in isolation, its surrounding lines rendered unintelligible by murky sound. With many of the hooks provided by the rich studio arrangements beyond the reach of the stripped-down four-piece (two guitars, bass, drums) touring band, the initial reaction can veer worryingly close to an acute case of the emperor’s new clothes: remove the warm analogue studio gloss, and you’ve very little of any genuine nutritional value left. The band’s immediate bond and hilarious verbal jousting (White: “what is Leeds close to?” Audience member: “Armageddon!”) with the sizable crowd provides a fair bit of consolation, but you know you’re in trouble when the banter is more engaging than the actual music.
Things take a massive leap for the better as soon as White and his three compatriots leave straight-ahead read-throughs of album cuts behind. Most acts make you want to reach for the tar and feathers when the prospect of ‘jamming’ raises its musty head. White and co., however, were clearly born to whip up a robust groove, and the further White ventures form the microphone stand and the gentle mid-tempo shimmer his albums reside in, the more confident and electrifying the proceedings get. Big Love (off 2012 debut Big Inner) wounds up in an epic jam that seems to catapult the laidback Tulsa funk of JJ Cale (a definite influence on White’s music and presentation) to a sweaty Saturday night at Fela Kuti’s legendary Lagos nightspot The Shrine. The relentless bounce of a hopped-up Rock & Roll Is Cold makes the expansive soft-focus funk of the original sound tentative and shy. The superb encore of Circle ‘Round The Sun and the uncharacteristically irate Holy Moly, White’s vocals now front and centre of the mix, shakes off the feeling that White’s real talents lie in arrangement and production rather than songwriting and performance for good.
Accomplished as they are, White’s albums can suffer from an overly stubborn dedication to a mid-tempo slumber; on this evidence, he might do well to shed the comfy aural pillow provided by the extra musical elements and get a bit more primal next time around.
Gig date: April 15