Review by Cameron Arndt
Honest Man is an apt title for Canadian singer/songwriter Matt Andersen’s new album, for it’s a record filled with direct, raw and sincere songs, each delivered with empathy and intensity. The ten tracks contain touches of Americana, folk, rock, soul and R&B, but really it’s a release that refuses to be pigeonholed. What really ties it all together are Andersen’s adventurous spirit and tremendous, impassioned singing voice.
Based in New Brunswick, Andersen is rapidly becoming known across the globe after years of putting the work in touring. He has shared the stage and toured with Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Greg Allman, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Randy Bachman, Little Feat, Jonny Lang, Serena Ryder and many more, and won two European Blues Awards, three Maple Blues Awards and Best Solo Performer at the Memphis Blues Challenge in 2010. He also has 10 million views on YouTube, a JUNO nomination for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year (for Weightless in 2014), and a CIMA Road Gold award. Quite a resume!
However, it’s not awards, plaudits or even YouTube views that really matter, and Honest Man stands out as an inspiring, well rounded piece of work in it’s own right. It’s Andersen’s seventh album, and was produced in New York along with Grammy winning (more awards!) producer Commissioner Gordon (Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, KRSOne) who Andersen cites as a perfect partner on this record, ‘He has such a great approach and was able to tie-in so many new ideas to what I’ve done in the past without losing touch with my sound.’
Indeed, the depth and breadth of the material on the album is impressive, with lots of little twists and tweaks to add even more variation. A stellar cast of musicians bring their talents to the table, which leads to an fascinating assortment of unusual instruments, each adding their unique colour and texture.
First track, Break Away, throws a curveball right out of the gate. The song has a smooth, clear sound, and Andersen’s deep, expressive voice immediately stands out as something special. However, it also quickly becomes apparent that the jaunty, snappy rhythm is in fact a backing beat, and not a live kit. It’s a novel move in this style of music, and an intriguing one – for the listener and for the performer himself, it would seem, ‘Using beats is something I never thought I would go for. But it was a lot of fun and I’m really excited with what we recorded. If I was left up to my own devices it would have been a very different record.’
Andersen also wrote Let’s Get Back around a beat provided by Gordon, and they played to that same beat whilst tracking. It’s a number which features a subtle banjo in the background, and a great extended trumpet solo. As we mentioned, these two are just a couple of the many instruments used on the record. The title track includes a recurring motif from a full horn section, adding a stax/motown feel to the song’s shuffling, R&B groove, while the 50s rock-n-roll-ballad stylings of Last Surrender are given added polish by a more subtle performance from the horns before an excellent sax solo with plenty of other instruments backing and Quiet Company – a delicate piano/guitar number made extra plaintive by the softly sung vocal and a shimmering pedal steel guitar in the background.
All these extra touches are just that, however, and they’re tastefully mixed so as to never overpower the undoubted most important feature of this record, the performance of Matt Andersen. His voice is simply tremendous, and he has that special ability to illuminate the lyrics, really make the listener feel what he’s feeling. He modulates his singing throughout, one minute singing in a deep, soulful register – as on second track The Gift – then the next showing his full power on with the sustained notes in the intense chorus of the aforementioned Let’s Get Back. Elsewhere, I’m Giving In is a tremendously affecting, devastatingly beautiful piano ballad about taking the risk to commit to a relationship, and as the song swells towards the end and Andersen lets rip singing ‘So whatever happens now, at least you’ve heard out loud, the way I feel about you, ain’t no turning round’ you can’t help but experience the emotion in the words. The vocals for this one were the last thing tracked for the album, recorded at Gordon’s studio after the last session had been interrupted by Alicia Keys rehearsing in the ballroom above the studio they were using. Retiring to listen to the songs and have a scotch, they decided to give the vocals a go at 1am that morning – with, in our opinion, quite stunning results!
Another piano-led number is the closing, One Good Song. I loved the idea of the lyrics in this, about the eternal struggle of a songwriter to find that elusive special song, and what they would do to get there. Containing such evocative lines as ‘I’ll take thousands of sleepless nights, I’ll take all my loves gone wrong’ and ‘I’ll take “hi, how are you?” on the phone, I’ll take any road, I won’t ever go home, just give me one good song.’ It’s decorated with a flute part which dances around the words, providing another little departure from the norm.
It’s an inspiring album to listen to, with a relaxed vibe which lets you fully appreciate the craft that has gone into the words and music – though there are up-tempo number such as the title track and the country-shuffle of the politically charged Who Are You Listening To, which is adorned with buzzy guitar licks and a cool distorted guitar solo. Renowned as a powerhouse live performer, you’d be well advised to catch Andersen performing these songs out on the road – he has plenty of dates coming up soon. Honest Man is a superb, touching record, full of nice touches in production and extra instruments which nonetheless give full spotlight to Andersen’s sensational voice and engaging lyrics.
Catch Matt on tour in Europe in May and June!