A record that collapses under its own weight
It’s not that Matthew E. White doesn’t have an identity as an artist—it’s just that his identity is so hard to pin down. On one hand, he’s a singer-songwriter with a foot planted in modern indie rock, and on the other hand, he’s a purveyor of sounds from ’70s pop, soul and disco. His music doesn’t feel like a straightforward retro throw-back, nor a truly modern reinvention. They sound strange upon first listen, but his first two records are solid, with some stunning sound work and soulful performances. On his most recent album, K Bay, he takes an even greater foray into the upbeat sounds of disco. However, this doesn’t quite pan out as his dense instrumental tableau collapses under its own weight, with poor production choices and instrumental moods that rarely mesh.
These problems start off right away with “Genuine Hesitation,” which is built on a chugging synth bassline that never evolves over the seven-minute runtime, along with an ugly single guitar chord that plays over the hook, sticking out like a sore thumb and fading away quickly as if it wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. The drumming on this album is all over the place—“Electric” is dominated by clattering percussion, with cymbals louder than White’s voice, and the pretty harp flutters and funky licks on ‘Take Your Time (And Find That Orange To Squeeze)” are hampered by the trudging drums. The backing vocals, which have previously been a strength of White’s, are jarring and obnoxious, from the yelping of “Nested” to the repetition of “bang-bang” on “Never Had It Better.” There are individual sounds that might work in another context, but none of the songs come together and rise to be more than the sum of their parts.
The instrumentals on this record do have their moments on occasion. White is better known for his work as a producer, composer and arranger than for his solo output, and it shows—he really knows how to weave in some beautiful keyboard and other symphonic sounds. “Let’s Ball,” the closest thing to a pop song on the record, is full of earworms, especially the “Funkytown”-esque keyboard melody that comes after the second chorus. The panicked beeping noise that sounds against the anguished violins of “Fell Like An Ax” compliment the sense of danger in his vocal delivery, and the crescendo on “Only in America / When The Curtains of the Night are Peeled Back” provides a good backdrop for White’s listing off of famous victims of racism and white supremacy.
The one consistently good part of this album is the lyrics, which are largely focused on aging, trying to remain young and moving beyond a reckless love to an authentic one. There’s some naturalist imagery involving horses, the moon and oceans, which are a suit the psychedelic-tinged music. On the closing song, “Hedged In Darkness,” the lines range from hallucinatory, like “The sea was the color of lead, and the sky the color of smoke/ And the circles of the moon keep vibrating, keeps vibrating,” to koan-like, such as “Can a river know the meaning/ Of patience and of love before it hits the ocean?” And even though it doesn’t have much to do with the record’s overall theme, the final verse of “Only in America / When the Curtains of the Night are Peeled Back” powerfully touches on racism, begging for forgiveness for not doing enough to combat it.
White has an alluring voice, a deep baritone that conveys both joviality and wisdom. On “Hedged In Darkness,” he soulfully croons over gentle bass and synth plucks, and it’s nothing short of spellbinding. He’s always opted for a lot of vocal layering and multi-tracking. He continues this on K Bay, but on previous albums, these vocal layers were more tightly arranged, whereas here, they feel loose and unstable. He’s a strong enough singer to carry melodies on his own—there’s no reason for the blown-out layers of fuzz that coat his voice on “Genuine Hesitation” or “Nested.” Sometimes, the instability implied by messy vocal production plays to great effect on the more atmospheric, moody cuts like “Fell Like An Ax,” but this is not the primary tone of the record. On the other hand, if he’s going for a loose, fun vibe, then there are too many staccato melodies, like the thudding hook of “Judy,” and not enough improvisational flair. The technique is also employed so much that its impact is lessened, and it becomes grating over the hour-long run time.
K Bay isn’t all that different from Fresh Blood or Big Inner in terms of its sheer instrumental density—the major differences lie in its more colorful, upbeat palette of sounds. However, White bit off more than he could chew and wound up throwing too many different sounds together at once. These songs only come into fruition in fleeting bursts. Overall, this is the first time in his discography where White’s musical backdrops feel incongruous. The density didn’t work in his favor this time.