Richmond, Virginia-reared singer/songwriter/arranger Matthew E. White recently confessed to music blog Aquarium Drunkard that he had made a pilgrimage of sorts to Randy Newman’s home in L.A. a few years back. Rather than stalk the venerable songwriter/Oscar-winning soundtrack composer at a distance, though, White worked up the nerve to ring the man’s doorbell and hand off his own music. If it was a copy of his poised debut, Big Inner, there’s a good chance Newman might soon be ringing White up.
The biggest man to ever utter a line like “I am a barracuda/ I am a hurricane” and make it into the gentlest of admissions, White emerges on Big Inner fully steeped in the nuanced, vigilant and incisive songcraft of the likes of totemic American tunesmiths like Newman, Allen Toussaint and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner. And while such debuts are usually tinged by youthful exuberance and metabolism, there’s such patience in White’s delivery and his backing band’s pacing that belie their years.
Opener “One of These Days” simmers and sees through the temporality of the world, White assuring his betrothed that even though “we all pass away/ everyone finds a way,” he still wants to be there “when the glory fades…and never turn away.” His whispers mingle with Dixieland horns and a crisp backbeat on “Will You Love Me,” and he sounds positively sage when he sings at that song’s climax: “Darkness can’t drive out darkness/ only love can do that.” The dilapidated yet regal strings of “Hot Toddies” sound as drunken and quietly mirthful as vintage Newman, while the nine stirring minutes of closer “Brazos” cloaks itself in cresting strings, a driving bassline and gospel choir that evokes Spiritualized’s sense of redemption through sound. Underneath almost every song there pulses New Orleans’s second line strut. You can hear it buoy the uptempo “Steady Pace” as White ensures his love with the same sense of calm that he and his band deploy throughout this magnificent debut: “We can take our time.”