The leadoff track of Matthew Barber’s Ghost Notes, “Easily Bruised” (download), kicks off with a sequence of sounds that perfectly sums up his overall aesthetic: A gentle acoustic guitar, a subtle organ, and high, slightly dusky vocals that suggest a Laurel Canyon vibe with a touch of Van Morrison by way of Marc Cohn. It’s a well-worn sound, obviously, but one that’s familiar for a reason — namely, that it’s just about perfect for talking about love, which is just as well, because that’s exactly what Barber likes to do.
So yeah, this is singer/songwriter music, and that’s become sort of a red flag in a marketplace glutted with the stuff, but rather than just tossing another acoustic guitar on the pile, Barber offers a mostly quite compelling reminder of why record labels are always looking for guys with three days of scruff and a few done-me-wrong songs. When it’s done right, this type of music hits the sweet spot between enduring art and widespread commercial appeal more accurately than perhaps any other genre — it’s why James Taylor’s first Greatest Hits has been an evergreen seller for decades, and why Jackson Browne can afford to arrange dolphin fundraisers or whatever the hell he does between releasing mediocre records once a decade. Matthew Barber doesn’t have a “Fire and Rain” or “The Pretender” in his songbook — at least not yet — and in fact, for a guy who so clearly evokes some fairly profound forebears, his lyrics can be downright weak. But he does have a gift for an easy melody, and unlike a lot of his peers, he understands the art of sequencing a record; though there’s certainly no shortage of soothing, gently swaying ballads on Ghost Notes, Barber mixes in some uptempo numbers to keep things interesting.
All in all, even if it doesn’t break any new ground, the album goes down so smoothly that it’s hard to be upset about its lack of originality. And though Barber’s lyrics are easily his weakest area, he does manage to get off a few nice lines — like at the end of “Somebody Sometime,” when he warns, “You gotta lie to somebody sometime / Better make it white.” It’s too late in his career to call this an auspicious debut, so let’s just say it’s one to grow on. I’m certainly interested in hearing what comes next.
Upcoming tour dates:
May 12 Living Room – NYC
May 13 Union Hall – NYC with Jill Sobule
May 14 Milltown – Carrboro, NC
May 15 Farm 255 – Athens, GA
May 16 Criminal Records – Atlanta, GA