If this second solo album from Brit singer-songwriter John Matthias isn't a big hit, he would appear to have plenty of other irons in the fire. A Physics academic and a member of the Computer Music Research department at Exeter University, where he's currently working on music-related artificial intelligence, he's also a virtuoso violinist who played on Radiohead's The Bends and collaborates with jazz producer Matthew Herbert. None of which gives any clues to the contemplative, politicized folk-rock of his solo muse, which harks back to the hippy acoustica of John Martyn, Kevin Ayers and even Donovan, yet boasts production from Coldcut's Jonathan More and UK urban producer Roy Merchant. It's an unlikely blend of disparate interests and collaborators to produce such an understated treasure of a record.
The key track is "Stockwell Road," a drifting, beat-less folk ballad about the death of Jean Charles De Menezes, the innocent Brazilian mistaken for a terrorist and shot by police at London's Stockwell station. As piano carries the songs melodic weight, and violin and light electronic textures provide a spooked edge, Matthias's fragile, modest voice expresses quiet horror in having to tread the same steps as De Menezes as he travels to work, and it feels like a quietly devastating reflection of the tension on London's streets in 2008.
The stand-out likes of "Open," "Viper's Nest" and "Stocktaking" take the same ambient acoustic route, while "Blind Lead the Blind" and "Spinnaker" essay a discrete, John Cale-esque rock, and the innovative "Police Car" and "King of a Small Town" veer towards a low-tempo electronica with pastoral folk touches. This all puts Matthias into a similar box as the likes of Fink and Tunng, but there is both an eclecticism and a troubled anger to Matthias that marches to the beat of a different, and deeper, drum. Stories from the Watercooler is the sort of quiet gem that deserves a wider audience.