Matt Berry is not someone you can imagine approaching the early hours of the morning at anything other than ramming speed. The Matt Berry most are familiar with possesses a mighty bush of hair, an oh-so-manly moustache (in Toast Mode) and that voice. He seems to be a man built entirely for pleas-uuuure. His peculiar way of pronouncing things gives his delivery of a joke a peculiar sense of elasticity and rhythm, whilst the volume is rarely set below “ear mangling”. The onscreen Matt Berry is larger and louder than life, and more manly than a pit of wrestling James Bonds doused in Brut.
Since 2008, there has been another side to him that has perhaps slipped under the radar just a little. The musical Berry is an entirely different proposition to the debonair beef foghorn we’ve come to love. There’s nothing much in the way of comedy to be found on his albums and his vocals are in a far higher register than you’d expect from somebody capable of such a growling rumble. If anything has remained from his onscreen personae, it’s the belief in the power of laid back lounge jazz with the main difference being that the Acid Jazz version won’t try and charm you out of your pants because he’s far too busy exploring dreamworlds, paranoia and Fender Rhodes solos.
On his previous album Music For Insomniacs, Berry explored effects of sleeplessness and The Small Hours follows a similar path by attempting to soundtrack those moments in the night when staring at the ceiling and worrying are the only options because sleep is apparently impossible.
These moments of restlessness explain the strange imagery conjured up on The Peach & The Melon. A wispy acoustic song, given to fits of funk outbreaks it’s tales of talking fruit and pizza thief foxes could easily be dismissed as comedic flights of fancy that don’t quite work, but dig a little deeper and the lines about the Manson girls and bags full of bifocals give the whole thing a worrysome undertow. As a summation of that point where being awake and still dreaming, it’s pretty much on the button and neatly side-steps the issue of it being that most awkward of things to get right, the comedy song.
Strange imagery aside, it takes The Small Hours a little while to really get going. As an easy-listening album, it functions perfectly well, but its laid back approach occasionally undercuts some of the emotion tangled up in the lyrics. One By One for example is a languid schmooze, that drifts past like a warm summer breeze, but it’s so laid back that it’s easy to miss that relationship breakdown is at its heart. Say It Again has some nice melodies, but doesn’t really ignite and the same is true of Gone For Good and Beam Me Up, although the latter does at least inject a few space rock guitar barbs here and there. Elsewhere, Lord Above mixes what appears to be the between scenes music from Toast with Hit The Road Jack and a few Ray Manzarek styled breaks and a heartily delivered trumpet solo.
It’s not until Night Terrors that things really start to get interesting. There are no vocals on this track at all; it’s just a spiralling lounge-core jazz-funk workout. Over the course of nearly 10 minutes Berry and his musicians explore moods and tempo changes without ever getting onerous. If the rest of the album plays a bit safe, its here where Berry stretches out and flexes his inventive musical muscles as he traverses the sleepy otherworld. At times it’s scary, at others welcoming and at others, it’s like hanging out in the black lodge in Twin Peaks with a damn fine cup of coffee as Corduroy run through a quick set in the corner.
The coffee might explain the night terrors and the sudden focus that the album gains at this point. Obsessed And So Obscure contains a bunch of sharp vocal hooks and a narrative about a love of Christopher Lee, whilst Berry’s perfectly damaged croon fits Wounded Heart well, even if the guitar solo is somewhat jarring. Finishing with the title track, The Small Hours finally becomes as strange and otherworldly as perhaps the entire album should have been. The whole work is not a disaster by any means, but it’s when Berry’s focus seems to wane and things seem more spontaneous that his music becomes more alive.