Musical polymath Matthew E. White has an affinity for soul and gospel legends, and analogue-recording techniques that has deeply informed the ideal of his self-established record label Spacebomb. With its various in-house ensembles (strings, horns, choir), White demonstrated this aesthetic with his striking debut Big Inner. After producing Natalie Prass’ acclaimed self-titled debut earlier this year, White showcases the same soul and gospel-inspired ideal in his own sophomore release. Fresh Blood treads the same path marked by Big Inner and Spacebomb three years ago, developing his orchestration skills and emotional range even further.
Opening with Take Care My Baby, White’s husky, half-voiced reveries immediately invite us in. Moving gradually from delicate to vehement, the wonderful descending horn motif and moreish interjections from Spacebomb’s backing chorus towards the end of the track provide the fervour our ears anticipated. White’s aptitude for effective, soaring orchestration rears its head throughout the album. The expert combination of perforated horns, and soaring strings and voices on Fruit Trees encircles the listener with sweeping harmonies.
Similarly, White showcases his arranging skills, polished as bandleader of avant-garde jazz big band Fight The Big Bull, in the orchestral and percussion-driven Vision, and in Golden Robes, placing pommelling horns and staccato backing over a strolling 6/8 tempo. It’s the dissonance-laden Tranquillity, however, tat becomes the standout example of White’s lush instrumental and harmonic choices. Written as an ode to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tranquillity is a poetic contemplation of death that pays homage to the actor. White’s beautiful lyricism (“I’ll climb inside your footsteps and sleep beneath your sea”) and arresting dissonance, which perfectly never completely resolves at the end of the track, brings something unexpected but crucial to Fresh Blood.
Like Tranquillity, Holy Moly is one of the emotional apexes of the album. A sensitive and meaningful scrutiny of the child sexual abuse widespread within religious institutions, Holy Moly provides the album’s essential heartbeat. If, like me, you’ve been subconsciously waiting for White’s relentlessly composed voice to lose its cool, then Holy Moly provides the opportunity. There’s an emotional intensity that exists on the brink until it’s released by the percussion-driven climax, beautifully layered with polyphony and wailing guitars. On the other end of the spectrum is lead single Rock & Rock is Cold, a rollicking, wry critique of genre stereotypes, ironically and appropriately played out by boisterous 12-bar blues.
While there are points on the album where White’s characteristic simplicity and level-headed delivery become somewhat pedestrian, leaving me begging for a glimpse at frenzy, he skilfully makes the listener wait for certain moments. And these experiences almost completely makeup for the rare occasions of atmospheric plateau.