It may not have had the exposure of Kanye West’s Yeezus, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories or Arctic Monkeys’ AM, but there was no doubting the fact that Matthew E White’s debut solo album, Big Inner, was up there with the best of 2013. The record, which was the first to come from his new Motown-inspired label Spacebomb, was given its world wide release by Domino and it wasn’t long before critics started to take notice.
Big Inner, which had already been released to widespread acclaim in America in 2012, saw the Virginian singer-songwriter craft seven songs of near perfection. The gospel-infused arrangements demonstrated his fondness for Southern soul and along with his Spacebomb house band, White was able to deliver in a way that he had never quite managed before as a member of Fight The Big Bull or The Great White Jenkins.
While White he may have initially intended for the record to simply act as a launch pad for the Spacebomb project, it quickly grew into something much bigger and resulted in the 32-year-old returning to the studio to record a follow-up. Unsurprisingly, his second album, Fresh Blood, continues very much in the same vein as Big Inner, rarely tampering with the formula that served White so well first time around.
Opener Take Care My Baby could have easily slotted into his debut, gently easing the listener in with its sweet piano melody, before evolving into a jaunty slice of infectious pop. The song features traces of White’s jazz roots – which is a welcome addition – and it is a more than suitable re-introduction to the delightfully comforting soundscape that made Big Inner such a magnetic record.
It is followed by the album’s lead single, Rock & Roll Is Cold, which is one of the more up tempo tracks on Fresh Blood, with its brisk pace set by a driving piano groove and prominent horns. “You said you found the soul of rock and roll/ hey hey, rock and roll it don’t have no soul/ everybody knows that,” White sings, delivering lyrics full of attitude in such as way that it ends up dealing with a serious subject in a playful, tongue-in-cheek manner.
White is not afraid to deal with difficult topics throughout Fresh Blood, with Holy Moly a prime example. The track sees him tackle the issue of sexual abuse within the church over a gradually accelerating piano melody, singing: “All the people we trust to stand up for us/ people we trust to hold on to us/ people we trust to deliver us.” It’s a powerful message – as is the one contained within his ode to Philip Seymour Hoffman on the aptly named Tranquility, which is hauntingly beautiful.
Elsewhere, the record confirms White’s ability to write songs that slowly hook the listener in – something he achieved time and again on Big Inner. Feeling Good Is Good Enough is almost certain to put a big smile on the face of anyone who listens to it in the same way as Big Love did on Fresh Blood’s predecessor, while the pulsating Fruit Trees makes use of the house band to full effect over its chaotic, percussion driven five-minute runtime.
After coming from the position of a relative unknown on his first record, there was a lot of pressure on Matthew E White to deliver something as good the second time around. Yet the expectation appears to have hardly phased him, as Fresh Blood reaches similar heady heights. He is an artist who continues to intrigue and delight in equal measure and by the end of closing track Love Is Deep, you will just want to experience it all over again.