JULY ALBUM OF THE MONTH
Third time lucky, I guess. The 2015 Colour of Noise album I still play to this day and class it as one of the top 10 albums of this new rock revival – although, for some reason, I never reviewed it. And Matt’s debut album with The Coldhearts also somehow slipped through the review net – despite us being first out with ‘Black Diamonds,’ our love for the silky, upbeat ‘Home’ and the long run enjoyed by ‘Old Enough and Ugly Enough.’ The fact that latter song is currently enjoying a second lease of life on Modern Rock Vol 3 underlines an important point about Matt’s music – its appeal has longevity. We still dip in to Furyon on Friday nights, the Colour of Noise CD is one of just a handful in permanent residence in the studio, and songs from the first Coldhearts album often call us back for airplay. The songs choose us – and that says a great deal.
I actually started writing a review for the first Coldhearts album but, doing just one album review a month, the challenge is always choosing which one to go with and for some reason the review was never finished. In terms of our ‘Albums of the Month’ it was possibly the one that got away – so we make good here. This review is as much about the merit of these brooding new songs as it is recognition for a musician who deserves far more attention than he sometimes gets. Matt Mitchell is a lovely guy – grounded, engaging and genuine. He’s in it for the music and, importantly, he’s a working musician. There’s a lot of young rock musicians out there doing music outside a day job – aiming for the media attention and networking into the choice festivals that allow them to live the dream. Matt’s more than this, he’s a full-timer who’s all-in and it’s his music that puts food on the table for the family and pays the bills. After two-years of lockdown, the distinction here is important because, as music fans, we need to be aware of those artists that have been most directly and significantly affected by the shutdown of grassroots music.
This point is also relevant to my overall impression of the music on this fine new album. Whilst Matt’s voice has an instant and timeless signature of its own, the mood of the music on this album is very different from what went before. The collection is more angular, it’s deeper and darker in places. There is a pervading sense of dark clouds and angst giving this music the feeling of material written during lockdown. For a working musician unable to gig, you’re going to feel things and express them on songs written during this period – whether it was a conscious decision or not. What I feel from Matt on this album is fight; a determination to create, to move forward and stand tall – despite the music scene facing destruction during COVID. The music is louder, in places blunter, far more direct. For me the collection of songs is less polished than the Coldhearts debut, but this album is a product of its time – a mission statement from a working musician that – to quote Mr Thomas – steadfastly refuses to go quietly into the night.
I’m not going to do a track-by-track narrative here. I’ve been writing as I have listened, I always think capturing that immediate reaction is important. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought where you have to say everything is brilliant but there is much here to commend. This is a powerful and rich album, which is why we’ve called it for July. There are ‘easier’ listens for the July releases I’ve listened to – and some that follow a safer verse-chrous-tap-your-toe rock formula – but Matt’s album has the strongest heartbeat and has a fiercey strong, self-assured personality. Four brilliant songs, among Matt’s best, and even the ones that didn’t grab me play their part in giving the album a cohesive sense of purpose. After three listens, these are my over-arching observations.
The opening and closing tracks are emphatically powerful. If albums are like shows, when you remember how they started and closed, then this bodes well for this album. The album opener ‘Mission’ opens with pomp and immediate drama. It feels a bit like a new ‘Black Diamonds’ for a new era – yes, it’s different but, in essence, it is a bridge to what went before. A powerful, intense song, it has a dark, brooding menace to it that evokes a snapshot from life in the lockdown tunnel. The album closer ‘Snakes’ is very special indeed – a bit of an opus track; in places symphonic in character with some arresting lyrics that invite you to hit the replay button. ‘Snakes’ is possibly a step-up in terms of craft, ambition and arrangement. It presents a different aspect to Matt’s oeuvre – and it closes the album on a real high.
Less is more
For me, the two individual standout tracks are the less intense ones. Track five ‘Don’t You Think It’s Time’ is by a country mile my pick of the album. For fans of ‘Old Enough,’ here again Matt shows what he can do with a more thoughtful, stripped-back song. The song is the most effective on the album at showcasing Matt’s vocal palette – which is vulnerable, expressive and emotional. It’s one of the quieter songs on the album, yet it’s also the most powerful. Track 9 ‘Sending Out My Love’ – in vocal terms – is possibly Matt’s Jeff Buckley ‘Hallelujah’ moment. Another song where it is the vocal tone and range that wins the day, great moments of light and shade.
Reflecting on these two songs reaffirms by view that Matt is all about the voice. Like Lynne Jackaman, Nathan James, Sari Schorr, Aaron Buchanan – and ultimately Freddie – Matt’s greatest asset is his voice because it is so distinctive. His voice makes his records instantly recognisable, an important quality for being relatively rare. As such, I think Matt’s better songs are the ones where the music works around the character of the vocal – rather than a vocal being added to a banging music arrangement. In marketing terms, I understand the onus on so many bands to deliver radio bangers, but in music terms I am interested in the songs where Matt’s vocals determine the style of music that best works around his performances.
Order and flow
The album builds well as a journey. After the dramatic opener ‘Mission’ – and then the Little Angel cameos on ‘Razor Tongue’ – the album starts solidly. Track 5 then opens things up and, thereafter, there’s a more varied music journey which maintains interest, throws in a few surprises, and builds to the epic closer. Along the way, ‘C’mon C’mon and ‘It’s Only Rock N Roll (After All)’ are standouts for “side two” of the album. This music reminds us that an album should be a journey. Some songs you will like, some less so, but it’s what you feel after the last track ends that matters. This, in essence, is the lost art of the album.
If Matt’s debut album with The Coldhearts was polished, this album has more punch and edge – but, with that, comes greater authenticity. We live in troubled times and sometimes we need music to reflect the moods we can’t always put into words. As a collection of 10 songs, there are some I love, many I like and few classic rockers that didn’t quite do it for me. But that’s fine, the point of an album is the impression the body of work as a whole gives you. And it’s the overall impression that shines.
Matt wrote this album at home during lockdown. A time of huge anxiety, when the grassroots music scene teetered on a cliff edge. He didn’t seek attention and affirmation on socials, he instead focused on songwriting and developing his craft. Those lockdown years were nerve-racking for any self-employed person and Matt’s journey washes through the songs on this album. This is not just a bunch of new songs; this album captures a moment in time – and how it felt to live through it.
There’s also a sense Matt is pushing himself and the output is music that more directly and more honestly speaks for our times. With the world re-emerging from an era-defining pandemic, experiencing war in Europe and facing the ticking clock of the global climate crisis, our world is at a seismic tipping point. Add to that a cost-of-living crisis taking root and we’re all in for a bumpy ride. We don’t need safe beige rock today, with neat-rounded edges. No, we need music that pushes us out of a comfort zone and musicians that are up for being brave and pushing themselves creatively. And on all these counts, once again Matt Mitchell brings it. With ‘Mission,’ Matt Mitchell presents an intensely purposeful and richly emotive album that will wake you up, make you think and force a reaction. This is an album with edge for a troubled world – and we need more of it.
‘Mission’ is released on 29 July 2022
Archive audio interviews with Matt on Great Music Stories