A member of Johnny Flynn and José González‘s backing bands, James Mathé – aka Barbarossa – is also more than capable as an artist in his own right. His debut album, 2009’s Chemical Campfires, received promising reviews and his move onto Memphis Industries – home of Field Music, The Go! Team and Dutch Uncles – shows a level of confidence but also a level of expectation.
Mathé has been largely acoustic based, as his debut album and work with Flynn and González show. Bloodlines sees a departure from this, with a mixture of drum machine loops and beats, organ and reverberating bass. Yet it’s Mathé’s vocals that are the major feature, a mixture of the soulful and the aching.
All this is demonstrated very well in the delicate album opener and title track Bloodlines, a cross between the anguished (“Take my hand if it gets you through… you break my mind… it would break your heart if you knew this was all about you”) and the minimal, with its lingering organ, synth and slow tempo drum beats combining to produce something quite panoramic sounding.
Following track Turbines has a bit more ballast with its particularly catchy, looping guitar riffs and echoic drums. Yet the vocal gets lost in the production, making it difficult to digest what Mathé is singing. This was, perhaps, intentional; Mathé admitted that he deliberately chose the analogue route of recording, eschewing clarity for something rougher and more organic.
Butterfly Plague does a better job, though, with the sparse synth and organ helping achieve a somewhat gothic tone – especially with lyrics such as “we walk alone to the graves”. Pagliaccio then takes things up a notch – a sort of lo-fi dance track, with subtle tones of synth underneath while Mathé’s voice is allowed to soar. Indeed, this is particularly well produced; while it has that lo-fi organicity, it also has a sort of sheen to it as well.
S.I.H.F.F.Y. takes things back to a more minimal sound – just bass drum, touches of organ and slight sounding synth loops – with Mathé now sounding somewhat lovelorn: “I would break or shatter every bone to work this out… if you don’t want to see flowers then turn away now… if you don’t want to talk for hours then turn and go”. The last minute and a half is particularly noteworthy, taking the track into quite an unpredictable direction – from slow tempo samples we get something much more uptempo, while Mathé’s cooing can be heard just above.
This leads into the album’s stand-out track, Battles. At exactly six minutes it’s the album’s longest offering but it has a noteworthy tenderness, expressed largely through Mathé voice again, which conveys a sense of deep introspection while leading to something quietly defiant (“God is my kite… I’ll win these battles of mine”). The understated guitar and drum loops complement Mathé very well, too.
Single The Load is the most radio-friendly with its fuller sound, extensive synth and expansive sounding vocal, with the track coming well into life towards the latter portion. Meanwhile, album closer Seeds is a rather ambient effort – quite Múm like, especially with its glitch beats providing a satisfying undertone and contrasting the purity of Mathé’s vocals.
As an album, Bloodlines is one catering for a particular types of mood – it’s a largely introspective record that occasionally brings with it some welcome variation. It requires a few listens to grasp but after that it’s pretty rewarding. Mathé’s voice is also highly impressive and versatile – a real asset.
But if anything, the tracks from Bloodlines will translate far better live. It’s easily made for smaller churches, chapels and intimate venues with acoustics made for Bloodlines’ largely minimal sound and Mathé’s elegant vocal. Something perhaps to look out for in the future, once his current run of gigs is over.