William Matheny and the Strange Constellations
an album review by Joshua Beane
William Matheny has written the best album I’ve heard this year. You need to be paying attention to this guy. He’s right in your backyard, and he’s one of the best songwriters in the country.
“Strange Constellations” has an urgency that you usually find in songs that have been setting in someone’s head for a decade, while still remaining reflective. His lyrics remember events and people wistfully. This guy obviously has a poetic heart. The truth is that Matheny has caught some lightning in a bottle with this record.
Like many great singer-songwriters who perform in bands, he wraps the songs up in music that is so winsome and effective that you don’t always notice the depth of what he’s getting at until you’ve spent some time with the songs. The first one on the album, “Teenage Bones”, is a perfect example of this. I love the lyric, “I used to walk to your house in the summertime, let the carwash spray get me wet. Leave my shoes by your door and sit all day on your floor and say things I’d one day regret.” If Matheny performed this solo, audiences might more quickly notice the melancholic conflict articulated in the song. Instead, what you probably notice initially is how much this sounds like a Tom Petty song.
There are a lot of other echoes you catch on this album. “Living Half to Death” sounds like a song that a twenty-first century Buddy Holly might have written about living in college party town. Matheny delivers the song with hardly more than a hint of regret, even if he seems to accept that the image depicted is not an entirely positive one. It’s refreshing to see a man at peace with his sins, instead of tossing around empty mea culpas.
Someone compared William Matheny to Jonathan Richman. I found this an inspired parallel. “29 Candles” is the country-fried rave-up that Richman’s “Modern Lovers” might have been, if he had been born in West Virginia. This is the sort of song that you sing along to before you’ve finished hearing it entirely.
“Funny Papers” has a George Jones or Conway Twitty feel. The lyrics are clever in a way that used to be de rigueur for country artists. At some point along the way, however, country music became an ugly, inbred parody of itself. Americana artists have tried to reclaim the glory of country music by going back to the headwaters. Matheny does that here so effectively that you have to check the liner notes to make sure this isn’t a cover of one of the great old songs that you forgot about. By writing music like this, Matheny has made something new and vibrant. Indeed, the aural landscape these songs play out on is a well-worn one. However, Matheny and his band are found more than capable of breathing new life into it.
An interesting aspect of established genres of music is that the right person is always able to find the verve and soul that lives in the core of the sound and use it to deliver a unique message. For Americana music, Matheny is that person. Strange Constellations is the album we’ve been waiting for. Buy the record. Go see the band.