A little history: I had lost track of Iain Matthews. But Like A Radio was a seismic surprise. And this new The New Mine is a very welcome and melodic aftershock. Both albums groove with carefully arranged and then re-arranged ‘Throwaway Street Puzzle’ pieces of rock, folk, pop, and (a touch of) jazz.
The New Mine begins with a brilliant rendition of Joni Mitchell’s brilliant song, ‘Ethiopia’. The tune oozes concern for humanity. Of course, Matthews Southern Comfort’s first big single years ago was a take on Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, and the two songs compress the years into very simple plea for a more intelligent, melodic, and vital world. Iain’s voice sings with a deeper pathos than his 70’s recordings, and even touches the raw passion of Bruce Cockburn.
‘The Hands Of Time’ ups the gospel ante and conjures joyous comfort, while confronting a time “when the sleep won’t come”. This song dips into the same spring water as The Band, spring water that flows with a pure and sepia melody.
Now, Robert Palmer had a big hit song with ‘Simply Irresistible’. I think he was singing about a woman. But the same could be said of ‘Feed It’. The tune bulges with a quick melody, a lively lyric, a soulful chorus, and an (almost) 50’s hamburger joint vocal. The songs buzzes with joy, a fluid acoustic guitar solo, and a jazzy piano. Sometimes, even pop music gets to touch the heavens.
And then the album dives into deeper waters. ‘Patty’s Poetry’ has a very catchy chorus and a friendly electric guitar. The title track is bluesy, acoustic, and piano jazzy with a very modern message that seconds the motion of fellow ex-Fairport Richard Thompson’s song that warns, “We’re all working for the Pharaoh”. Then, ‘Starvation Box’ begins with ‘Battle Of Evermore’ Zep thought, but then dissolves into the tale of a Vietnam vet who “won’t go back”. Of course, they nab the guy! And a nice guitar circles the defiance and deep psychology of the song.
A little more of history: Iain sang Fairport’s ‘Meet On The Ledge’. And that song is tattooed on the soul of any British folk-rock lover. ‘Nuff said! The original Matthews Southern Comfort cut three albums of folk music that gave a big wave to west coast Americana music. Then, there was a series of (blessed) solo records, the first two on the (equally blessed) Vertigo label. He moved to Elektra. These albums were tapestries of self-penned and covered songs that, despite their near-perfect beauty, never really sold many copies. He also played in Plainsong with Andy Roberts on guitar and recorded the very great album In Search Of Amelia Earhart. Then countless labels and countless records, including albums with Elliot Murphy and David Surkamp (of Palov’s Dog fame!) proved that Iain, when singing Richard Thompson’s words, did “really mean it” way back in Fairport history.
And, by the way, fans of (the great) Gene Clark and Mason Proffit (of ‘Two Hangmen’ and ‘Eugene Pratt’ fame) will find lots to love in those early solo records.
And now he has resurrected MSC with new members Bart Jan Baartmans, Bart de Win and Eric De Vries in a band that echoes the great sound of Steely Dan or the pop-rock perfection of China Crisis. This album also cuts similar grooves with Nick Lowe’s all over the place Jesus Of Cool (known in America as Pure Pop For Now People). So, this is quite serious rock, folk, pop, and (sort of) jazz stuff.
But, as I often quote Procol Harum, “Still there’ll be more”. ‘C’mon Amigo’ is country acoustic music that hovers in harmonious west coast folk rock beauty, with banjo and accordion breaths. ’The Hole’ slows time and asks the necessary questions about the future of all we hold so dear. The chorus, again, is a melodic exclamation sing-a-long pointed truth that overwhelms cynicism and demands an answer. ‘A Secret Is Gone’ is yet another accordion pulsed tune with urgent psychological plot. If this covers some of the same catchy ethos of the before-mentioned Nick Lowe’s Pure Pop For Now People, it also sings to the Pure Pop People who enjoy good and intelligent rock music.
The final three songs stretch the album to its finish line. ‘The Sacrificial Cow’, again, returns to gospel spring waters, with the nice touch of jazz piano. ‘Inbetween’ rolls with New Orleans flavour, and recalls the easy Big Muddy flow of Bobby Charles’ classic 1972 self-titled album. And then ‘In My Next Life’ is acoustic and confessional soft passion that sits well beside Rick Danko’s take on Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ from The Band’s Moondog Matinee. It’s a really nice final thoughtful groove.
Way back a long time ago, Iain sang his song, ‘Knowing The Game’ on his Journeys From Gospel Oak album that professed, “You may be taken down, you may be written off, it’s knowing how to stay the same, knowing how to play the game”. Sure, the good stuff always “comes around again”, and this is really good stuff, stuff that knows “how to play the game” but it still tent stakes a tough soul “to stay the same”, and then manages, against a lot of odds, to create yet another Iain Matthews album of near-perfect beauty.