Beginning with the easy-flowing, soft-spoken, melancholy “Songs Like These,” Morgan’s vocals hearken back to influences like Neil Young and Nick Drake, yet sounds right in the vein of modern bards like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. His cover of Sam & Dave’s hit “Hold On, I’m Coming” is in second position and gets a backwoods makeover that, while indistinguishable from the original arrangement, contains a sense of urgency and danger, which makes it a stellar reimagining. The melodiously unpretentious “SticksNStones” tells of longing set against a slight backbeat, while “Lost at Sea” juxtaposes the same theme against weeping strings and a bit more desperation (“I need you to believe in me / for a little bit longer / It’s so hard to be alone and lost at sea”). Wrapping up with “When You’re Gone,” a hymn-like durge with a surprising banjo accent, Morgan produces a strong finish to a tight collection.
A folk superstar in the Windy City, Morgan has more than paid his dues on the indie circuit; his songs have received placements on national and cable television, and he’s performed throughout the US. Now, it seems, Empathy is marking a brand new beginning for him, and hopefully a chance to show that there’s still a place for folk in music. And if there’s ever been an ambassador for the cause, it’s Matthew Morgan.