Back in the Game
Eric Matthews and his Foundation Sounds

I’m feeling like death right now. I have this painful chest cold, and I’m coughing and sneezing, and I made it one whole mile on the treadmill this morning before I practically collapsed, sputtering and heaving.

So yeah, not feeling well. And I think I’d like to put this week’s column to bed quickly, so that I can put myself to bed shortly thereafter. A couple of quick hits, a review, and we’re done for the week. I know, I know, you miss me already, but that’s just the way it has to be.

First up, the latest in a series of things to look forward to, 2006 edition:

The new Sloan album comes out on September 19. It’s called Never Hear the End of It, and in direct contrast to the brief (yet very enjoyable) Action Pact from 2003, this one has 30 songs and spans 76 minutes. Even so, the majority of these tunes must hover around the two-minute mark, so I’m fascinated to see if the band can make something like that come together. The record is being described as the Halifax Fab Four’s White Album, which could be either good or bad. The Beatles’ White Album is an occasionally brilliant, yet completely unfocused mess, and it will be interesting to see if Sloan follows suit.

The end of the year is shaping up, and some newly announced records could help the so-far struggling 2006 along. The Decemberists return on October 3, as does Beck with an album called The Information that he’s been working on since before Guero. Lindsey Buckingham checks in with an acoustic album called Under the Skin, Copeland comes back with a new one called Eat, Sleep, Repeat, and Sunny Day Real Estate mastermind Jeremy Enigk issues his second solo album (10 years after his first), dubbed World Waits.

Add in new things from Ben Folds, Modest Mouse, Unwed Sailor, the Walkmen and the first album in 24 years from some little band called the Who, and it might not be such a mediocre year after all.

On a completely different note, I want to point everyone in the direction of their local DVD store (or online equivalent), because Kicking and Screaming has finally found its way to digital permanence. No, not the Will Ferrell soccer movie (and I hate that I have to say that now), but Noah Baumbach’s brilliant, touching, and above all hysterical first movie. Baumbach hit last year with a critically acclaimed film called The Squid and the Whale, and while I agree that Squid is the better film, Kicking and Screaming will always be my favorite.

It concerns the year after college, and how that slowly becomes your life, but it does so with a script that I think is the closest I have seen to perfection. Each line is either incredibly funny, or incredibly moving, or often both. I saw it at exactly the right time in my life – during the months after graduating from St. Joseph’s, degree in hand, and living in a crummy apartment while working at a music magazine. It’s one of those films with special significance for me, so much so that I can’t really give you an objective review. I just love this movie to death, and can quote it endlessly.

For 10 years now, I’ve had to watch it on VHS, in a pan-and-scan version that cropped the edges of the screen, because there has been no DVD. Baunbach fans signed petitions, wrote letters, and basically waited for a decade while watching anything and everything (Porky’s II?) make it to disc first. Until Baumbach’s recent success with Squid and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic (which he co-wrote), I was all but convinced we’d never see a Kicking and Screaming DVD.

But here it is in a glittering Criterion Collection special edition, with deleted scenes, interviews, and a whole other short film from Baumbach, and I can’t help but feel that the guy is finally getting his due. The Squid and the Whale proved to the world that he’s a great filmmaker, but after Kicking and Screaming, I needed no further convincing. And if you’re sufficiently impressed by those two, his much-maligned second film, Mr. Jealousy, is also quite good.

Congrats, Noah. It’s about damn time.

* * * * *

If ever there were an album I was too harsh on, it’s Eric Matthews’ Six Kinds of Passion Looking for an Exit.

This seven-song excursion came out last year, after a nearly eight-year drought of new Matthews music, and all I can think is that I just felt it wasn’t enough. I was surprised upon spinning the thing that Matthews’ penchant for chamber-pop, for horns and strings and harpsichords, had all but gone by the wayside, leaving stripped-down melodic pop songs with a few snatches of trumpet here and there. And I guess I had forgotten what an interesting pleasure his voice is, and I was searching for something stronger and higher.

I don’t know what I was thinking, but I severely undervalued Six Kinds of Passion, so it was a treat playing it again recently and discovering what a good crop of songs it is. Eric Matthews hit in 1995 with an album called It’s Heavy in Here, and though he probably will never be recognized for it, he helped spark the new melodicism that grew out of the late 1990s. His sole hit, “Fanfare,” stood out from the crowd in ’95, inspired by the likes of Brian Wilson and Neil Hannon instead of Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain, and the record holds up – it’s a low-key delight.

But after his sophomore effort, the slightly less successful The Lateness of the Hour, Matthews disappeared, emerging most of a decade later with only seven new songs. And I wrote at the time that Six Kinds of Passion was either a curious epilogue or the start of the second phase of his career.

Happily, it’s the latter: Eric Matthews Phase Two continues with the Empyrean Records release of Foundation Sounds, his new album. And where Six Kinds could be rightly criticized for its brevity, this new one is an embarrassment of riches – 17 new songs, spanning more than 68 minutes. It sports the same stripped-down feel, and the same melodic winsomeness – in short, it’s an extension of Matthews’ new sound, which isn’t all that different from his old sound, just a little more raw.

As he explains in the liner notes, sound is a preoccupation on this album, and while budgetary constraints may have contributed to the sparseness, Matthews is also on a quest to find the core of what he does. That’s led him to play every instrument on this album (except for a quick clarinet bit on one song), and he gives himself what I call the Prince Credit: he wrote, produced and performed the whole thing. And amazingly, you’d never know that unless you read the liners – Foundation Sounds is warm and organic, not canned-sounding at all.

The barefaced nature of this record puts the focus on Matthews’ songs instead of his intricate orchestration, and that’s where it belongs. This guy can write a melody, and that gift never fails him here. Foundation Sounds stays at pretty much the same intensity throughout – it’s light and shade over slower tempos and languid atmospheres. None of these songs are easy, but all of them lead somewhere, and given a few listens, you’ll find numbers like “Survive” or “All the Clowns” catchy and irresistible. Emotional songs like “This Chance” benefit tremendously from the renewed focus, too – there’s nothing in the way of Matthews’ voice and melody here.

There are too many highlights to point out each one, but there is one thing I want to mention, since it will probably not be emphasized by many reviewers – Matthews’ bass playing on this record is extraordinary. He counts Colin Moulding and Paul McCartney as influences, and you can really tell – the bass is used as a melody instrument more often than not. His work never calls attention to itself, but it’s very advanced bass playing, and could be a by-product of his orchestral leanings. He knows what notes are needed in what spaces.

But Matthews’ music has always been impeccably arranged, and even though he’s working with fewer instruments here, and playing them all, he’s turned in essentially a series of string quartet pieces for guitars, drums and voice. Everything’s in its right place, and it’s obvious that he labored over this album – it’s easily the best thing he’s ever done, even though I miss the orchestra sometimes. There’s really no one else that sounds like Eric Matthews right now, and he’s made an album here that shines a spotlight not on his penchant for interesting tones and colors, but on his pure songwriting talent.

If you order Foundation Sounds from the label, you may possibly get a limited edition EP with five more songs from the same sessions. There’s no drop in quality here – these five could have been on the album, if the CD format would allow it. “The Boy Made of Clay” may well be the best song out of all 22, in fact, so I’d say it’s worth it. But even if you only get Foundation Sounds, it will be worth your money, and worth the nine years it’s taken Matthews to get a new full-length out.

So here’s to creative rebirths, and to second acts, especially from songwriters and musicians this good. And here’s to peeling back layer after layer until you get to the heart of things, as Eric Matthews has done here. Foundation Sounds is a very good record, and the start of something grand. This time, there’s no either/or about it – Matthews is back in the game, and the game is lucky to have him.

Next week, This Binary Universe.

See you in line Tuesday morning.