Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Matthew Heller - Invitation

Protest music has a long history throughout the world of music. Yet, while it has considerable roots, most only think of its earlier incarnations when it’s mentioned. Artists like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan tend to enter folks mind, their acoustic-driven, folk sounds being that which people so often identify with the genre. Yet, while those artists are for sure among the figureheads, protest music has reached much farther than that, seeing it enter into genres as diverse as punk, rock ‘n roll, blues, and even country.

And those are the places that anti-establishment musician, Matthew Heller, goes in order to get his message across.
The Portland-based artist has plenty to rail against, largely due to his life experiences. The son of a heroin addicted mother, who would eventually fall prey to her addiction, Heller has seen a lot of dark times and his music reflects that. Adding to those experiences, he shares, “I’ve lived in the Mission district in San Francisco, in the Puerto Rican parts of Brooklyn, and in the South Side of Chicago. In Chicago I saw a man freeze to death outside.” Those are the kinds of experiences that color in a life and, in Heller’s case, provide the angst to his passionate artistry.

That artistry comes forth in a plethora of forms on Heller’s latest outing, Invitation. One form finds the artist channeling the muse of indie and alt-flavored garage rock as he does on tracks like the energetic “Shake It” and the percussion-heavy “Another Dose.” And with his vocals playing back between references to Jack White and Billy Corgan, Heller continues to deliver his personal brand of vitriol on “Drone Strike,” passionately and loudly calling out the government for the use of drones.
The alt-rock elements come forward on tracks like “Father’s Son,” opening with warm acoustic notes before bursting into an electric chorus, complementing the song’s heartfelt lyric, while “Space Girl” is a plethora of sound and experimentation. Album closer “Dismay King” is a surprisingly approachable track and is one that should be considered as a radio single if opportunity arises, complete with choral vocals and insistent piano chops, while “Sink or Swim” is simplicity personified, seeing the artist settle in quietly and allow things to rest for a moment.

The other form that Heller’s musical persona seems most comfortable in is that of a rousing blues musician. Emerging from the poignant and powerful instrumentation of “Interlude,” Heller lets his inner bluesman slowly emerge through the tale of a drug addicted girl on “Howdy From Hades” and “Mercy” before “Man’s Prayer” finds his true blues emerging in a raging, acoustic storm. “Jaclyn of Spades” keeps this same vibe rolling, with help from guest artist Nathan Trueb, of Alpha Tango Alpha fame, providing slide guitar work. And further listens find that blues element running through many of the other tracks, something it’d be exciting to see Heller pursue further in the future.
But, as his current direction holds, Matthew Heller is doing things right. Eclectic and artistic as he is, these things don’t always add up to a listenable product. Yet, Heller manages to combine a flow of compelling meaning lyrically into tracks that ooze with enough creativity to stay interesting but not so much to alienate. It’s a fine line to walk and the better part of Invitation manages it well. Heller’s music has legs; it’ll be interesting to see where this collection of tracks takes this compelling artist.

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