A sincere, soulful homage
Every now and again, an artist appears from the ethers of the music scene that has a sound so earnest, so sincere, he or she may as well have walked out of a time machine. Enter the clean-cut and classy singer-songwriter Matt Brown, who has offered 10 tracks of retro homage with Walk Into the Light, an old soul collection of songs that are flirty, fun and even inspirational, with soulful melodies, hopeful messages and Telecasters and trumpets galore.
Brown, originally from the state of Washington and now based in Nashville, presents as something of an anti-hipster, lacking the despondency and irony that is usually responsible for propelling artists to the top of the indie heap. His songs are heartfelt and earnest, not edgy or aloof. His voice is smooth and polished, not scraggly or out-of-pitch. In this way, his songs are a breath of fresh air, akin to the likes of a Michael Bublé or a Norah Jones, someone who breaks through the pop charts but has their sound rooted in a great-American-songbook style of voice.
The unflinching honesty is almost jarring in this age of cloaked, moody, too-cool takes. But that’s what Brown offers: a talented singer and that full-band sound that’s gotten lost in the trends over the years. Walk Into the Light kicks off with pep on the title track and introduces us to Brown’s blues-toned voice, brought out by the horn sections and back-up harmonies that fill out the choruses and keep the energy moving forward.
Doo-wop feel in 2016 isn’t exactly trendy, but you have to give Brown props for staying true to his influences, his roots and coming up with a style all his own in his songs. His biography cites his early influences as the voices of Bill Withers and Ray Charles and the guitar stylings of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s clear from listening that this record takes influence from a number of past styles, but it’s a cohesive sound without too much clutter. While there’s a lot going on, band members layer up their sounds without overtaking one another, though it’s often the horns, harmonies and Brown’s hooks that are the most memorable parts of the tune.
The groovy bass of “Fixed on You” and shoulder-swinging horn sections is sassy and fun, as is the following track “Let it Show,” which oozes retro from the harmonies to the Wurlitzer. Brown reveals a more subtle and shy side on “Build Something With Me,” with its endearing refrain and delicate bells and lighter strings compared to the electrified big-band semi-hollows of the previous tracks. A song like this, in the right commercial or broadcast setting, could give Brown his breakthrough hit, as they pay less homage to past tropes and genres and offering a more adult-contemporary style.
“Don’t Wanna Know Why” shows off Brown’s talents for melody and vocal chops, offering some effortless-seeming high notes and dives – with a funky guitar line or two doing battle with the horns. “Take it While You Can” with its gospel choir backup vocals is one of the strongest tracks on the record, a personal ambition anthem that radiates energy and confidence. It’s a big song, in layers and parts and themes, but Brown has a voice to match as he sashays into the spotlight. Songs like this aren’t reinventing the wheel, but Brown is proving he can spin it pretty well.
The record winds to a close with a strong one-two punch of the heartfelt ballad “Love’s Not Enough” and “Let the Girl Live,” which show Brown at his most vulnerable and, by association, perhaps his most authentically honest.
All told, it’s hard to not be charmed by Brown’s lovesick, mid-tempo takes. it might be easy to resist or pass over for listeners who search for a sound more cutting-edge and trendy to sink their teeth into. Brown himself should be proud of this collection of sharp, clean songs and skillful singing — it is an honest feat, grounded in an obvious passion for music that makes you want to dance, sing and love.
“Walk Into the Light” is a fun, energetic record, but it might leave the listener wanting more, wondering about the vulnerability and depth that might simmer under the sparking surface. Brown’s retro R&B vibe and classic soul sensibilities are spot-on, but one wonders what other, more authentic riffs could rise up from that Telecaster should other influences — perhaps more rock-and-roll or country ones — come to the fore. But just considering what’s presented here, one truth is clear: They don’t make songs like this anymore; they won’t make songs like this anymore, except when someone like Matt Brown is determined to.