Iain Matthews seems to have a restless streak when it comes to musical collaborations; collaborations that have produced some fine music over a long career. BJ Baartmans is one of the latest, a member of the current Matthews Southern Comfort line-up. Now they have released [distant chatter], their first album as The Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy with, for the most part, BJ providing the music for Iain’s lyrics.
The sound isn’t quite as stripped down as you might expect. Iain does what Iain does, including all the lead vocals and harmonies and BJ does everything else and that’s a lot: laying down a restrained foundation on bass and drums and decorating with mandolin, banjo and the electric guitar which places us firmly in Matthews country. Nothing is overdone, though, and the production is crisp and clean.
The material is a sort of musical newsreel of the last eighteen months and there is both pain and anger in these words. The opening track, ‘Sleepwalking’, finds him in a creative vacuum during the pandemic: “my voice is being stilled/now my mind is unfulfilled” could describe the need for this album. ‘The Corner Of Sad And Lonely’ feels like a true story and is very disturbing, particularly so as the story ends without a resolution. It took me back to some of songs on The Dark Ride. ‘Are You A Racist’ is as angry and blunt as it can be and I was immediately reminded of ‘To Be White’ from A To B. I’m not sure that it’s such a good song although it makes its points in a way that demands attention.
‘Fourteen Months’ takes us back to the first track as Iain looks back on lockdown. It’s heartfelt but I hope it’s also somewhat exaggerated: I can’t believe that Iain sold his guitars and pawned his phone. Please tell me that I’m not wrong. ‘I’ve Gone Missing’ continues to find Iain lost but in ‘Writing Off The Blues’ he’s finding a way to emerge from the negativity. In ‘All That Glitters’ he ruminates on what we’re doing to our planet and in ‘Here’s Looking At You’ he considers his faith in mankind – I’m relieved to learn that he still has some – while ‘Low In The Water’ continues that theme.
Finally, ‘Is This It’ is the last expression of despair: “I must admit some days I feel like this is it” and I reckon we’ve all been there over the last year or so. On [distant chatter] Iain and BJ manage to put an, admittedly thin, gloss over the trials visited on us by the pandemic. You can listen with enjoyment if you don’t listen too closely but beneath the veneer is a dark and bitter album that’s also very good.
‘Are You A Racist’ – official video: