by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, November 1997
Lone Pop Warrior
Much has been written about the so-called "ork pop" movement, a new crop of nostalgic artists which revives the lush, orchestrated melodies of the Beatles, the Zombies, Love and especially His Holy Orkness himself, Brian Wilson. Bands like Yum-Yum, the High Llamas and Spookey Ruben all have their moments, but the genre's real jewel is Eric Matthews. Guitarist, clarinetist, keyboardist and classically trained trumpeter, Matthews first surfaced with Richard Davies as the duo Cardinal, whose self-titled 1994 album is a pivotal ork-pop release. However, Matthews completely outdid himself with his brilliant solo debut, It's Heavy In Here. A strikingly dramatic set of songs almost too sophisticated to be called mere "pop," the album even managed a minor hit single: the titanic "Fanfare," which earned paradoxical airplay alongside the Offspring and Pearl Jam. Strongly united with his ork peers (Ruben and Jason Falkner play on his records), Matthews sees the movement as a serious crusade to return intelligence and craftsmanship to pop music.
"I guess if you had to sum up the total impact of what we've done, and how much we've been talked about, it's something substantial," he says in a call from his Gresham, Oregon home. "I don't know if we're making progress or if we're going to persuade anybody about anything, but the main thing is that there's a bunch of people out here -- a small bunch -- that are working really hard and very resourcefully to make some of the most interesting records of the decade. I don't know if that means a lot to a whole lot of people, but to more sensitive music fans out there, I think it means something pretty important. Just to have some good, strong statements. Some good strong songs, and arrangements and production, for those of us who remember what it was like to put on records that were really great."
Matthews' second release, The Lateness of the Hour, shows no signs of backing down. While slightly warmer and less baroque than his debut, this 13-song collection just as elaborate, if not moreso. Introducing his new "451 Philharmonic," Matthews adds more strings, more brass and more woodwinds, yet always tastefully -- there's never a sense of empty decoration. Exhilarating rushes like "The Pleasant Kind" and "Everything So Real" mix with the stark laments of "To Clear the Air" and "Gilded Cages," while Matthews' alluring half-whisper reaches a sensual peak on the climactic "No Gnashing Teeth," the album's most explicitly Pet Sounds-influenced track. A worthy successor to It's Heavy In Here and surely on the short list of this year's best releases, Lateness is magnificent. Never shy to award himself praise where it's due (a trait that has cost him a few fans, no doubt), Matthews observes some clear development since his first release.
"I noticed right away that in my new material, something had changed," he says. "I had grown, and there was a greater sense of experimentation in my rhythm-guitar parts that were the foundations of the songs. My melodies were growing to have a greater range overall. I started realizing these things, and this affected my planning and preparations for producing this record, for the types of string-writing and types of instruments that I would incorporate. From that seed of acknowledging that I had basically stretched myself, that gave me a direction and spurred on what happened there."
"I feel that I've come up to speed a bit with the times," he continues. "For me, this is a more modern-sounding record. It has more of a feeling of the music of the future, rather than the future of today or yesterday. Many people said about the first record, 'One thing I like is that it doesn't seem to belong to any particular time. It sounds like it could've been recorded in the early '70s, or in the late '60s, or in the '80s sometime or now.' I hope that about this record, people will say things like, 'I've never heard anything quite like this before.' And 'This is new for Eric.'"
Despite the numerous musicians (over 20 of them), Matthews remains firmly in charge, sculpting tuba, oboe, euphonium, marimba, contrabass, French horn and other exotica into a seamlessly unified whole. Yet behind his obvious pride, he's always aware of his limitations. "When you see the credits on the record, you can tell that I'm working pretty hard. I do a lot of things beyond the writing of the songs. There aren't too many people who are the singer and arranger and conductor and orchestrator. But I just do the best I can, from an essentially unschooled position. Bacharach and George Martin, those are guys with degrees, and elaborate experience and study in scoring and arranging. From the get-go, I have made it up as I went. I have no book knowledge in the subject of harmony. All I have is my imagination, my ear and a big background with reading music. I've just been winging it, to what degree I'm not sure. Quite honestly, there are arrangers out there -- I think of records I've heard from people like Seal, Jeff Buckley and Björk -- who are working at a much higher level. They're somewhere else than I am right now. But I'm going to stick to my guns, do it myself and see where I can go with it."
Matthews' focus on arrangements and composition may be a little old-fashioned, but he's not denying that. It's the whole point, really.
"I am nostalgic -- that's totally true," he chuckles. "I own four cars, and all of them pre-date 1965. If you look at my wardrobe, it's primarily fashions of the same era: '50s and '60s. On the occasion when I put pop music on, it's usually something of my youth. I'm a nostalgic person, no question. But then there's the different side of me, the guy who goes into his little studio and writes things that have never been written before. The things that I've learned from good music are with me and maybe guide me in some way, but what I'm writing, unless there's some musicologist out there that can prove me wrong, is wholly original. I've not used any of the clichéd sorts of pop chord groupings. I'm doing my own thing, in many ways. There haven't been too many people like me."
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