Hopscotch Must-See: Matthew E. White

 

One of the best albums of the year, period: Big Inner. White brings his full 40-person ensemble to
the Hopscotch Festival tonight in Raleigh, 11:30 at Fletcher Opera Theater.

 

By Kyle Rosko

 

Matthew E. White’s Big Inner (Hometapes/Spacebomb), the solo debut from the
bandleader of Richmond, VA-based jazz band Fight the Big Bull, is the first
release on White’s own Spacebomb Records imprint. More than just a record
label, though, Spacebomb Records represents a remarkably ambitious project
headed by White which includes a recording studio and, in a throwback to the
days of Stax Records, a house band, with the idea being that artists signed to
Spacebomb will trek up to the Spacebomb Records studio and record with the
house band. Big Inner, then,
represents the first opportunity for the Spacebomb players – which include
White himself, drummer Pinson Chanselle, and bassist Cameron Ralston, as well
as a full string section, horn section, and choir – to show that they’re
capable of handling such lofty ambitions. Over the course of the seven-track,
41-minute record, White and his band make it abundantly clear that they’re more
than up to the task.

 

“One of These Days,” the album’s
opening track, sets the easy, laid-back tone for the rest of the album, as it
opens with White’s wispy vocals and slinky, soul-toned guitars punctuated by
Chanselle’s tight, punchy drums. The slow, meditative sound of the music,
though, in no way suggests a lack of precision, as White and his band remain
locked in to the rhythm of each and every song, keenly attuned to the spirit of
the thing as each track swells and builds to euphoria blown from trumpets. The
record’s pulse picks up with the spectacular bar-piano romp of “Big Love,” but
immediately returns to a slow stir on “Will You Love Me” and remains in its
mid-tempo wheelhouse for the majority of the remainder of the record, from the
appropriately titled “Steady Pace” all the way to the album’s phenomenal closer
and centerpiece, “Brazos.” White’s vocal
delivery, while perhaps technically unspectacular, is vital to the collective
vibe of the record; rather than impress, White’s softly whispered vocals seek
to soothe the listener’s soul.

 

Lyrically, Big Inner continually circles around several major themes,
particularly Jesus (the repeated chant of “Jesus Christ is our lord/Jesus
Christ, he is your friend” on “Brazos”), love (“Darkness can’t drive out
darkness/Only love can do that” on “Will You Love Me”), and bodies of water
(“You give me joy like a fountain deep down in my soul” on “One of These
Days”). These themes are certainly reflected in the musical arrangements of the
record as well, as the sounds on the record include spiritual choir
arrangements from Megafaun’s Phil Cook, starry-eyed string arrangements from
Trey Pollard, and cool-water guitar work from White himself that is influenced
in no small part by old soul records, as White harkens back to his house-band
predecessors at Stax Records.

 

Stax Records is far from the only
influence made clear on Big Inner,
however, as an essay in the inner packaging of the album details White’s love
for Dr. John, Randy Newman, and Allen Toussaint among others, all of whom make
their weight felt over the album’s running time. In fact, in the album’s liner
notes, writing credit is given to legends Jimmy Cliff (on “Will You Love Me”)
and Jorge Ben (on “Brazos”), despite the fact
that neither song appears to be a cover of the artist credited, blurring the
line between influence and authorship. All this makes clear is that there were
many musical spirits in the room when White and his Spacebomb band went to
recording the seven farmhouse-soul spirituals found on Big Inner, but what ultimately renders this record truly special is
the band’s ability to synthesize all these elements into something that is
uniquely their own. Here’s to hoping Spacebomb’s second release is just as
great.

 

 

 

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