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The Caged Bird Sings


Matthew Ryan: Regret Over the Wires

Hybrid, 2003

Rating: 4.7



Posted: September 23, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The lost highways of rock and roll are littered with the wrecks of former Next Big Things. These overlooked talents, for whatever reason, have watched as their career arcs stalled out early on the treacherous road to name recognition, while sleeker, shinier models zoomed past on their way to a finish line they don't deserve to cross. For the past three years, Matthew Ryan has veered dangerously close to the guard rail, engine trouble and a cracked alignment threatening to flip him over that edge. Not into a spectacular, crashing fireball like the kinds that dot B-movie car chases, but instead, into a gauzy cloud of career oblivion.

What were the root causes of that near-crash? That depends upon whom you ask. When Ryan followed up his tersely poetic, elegant pit bull of a debut, 1997's May Day, with the grand, sweeping rock ambition of 2000's East Autumn Grin, he certainly threw some of his newly won fans for a loop. Of course, irony dictates that those fans, who'd so highly praised the freshness of his figurative voice, would turn a deaf ear once he chose not to stay put in the familiar mold that first won their hearts. (Especially if, as this writer believes, Grin far outshone its predecessor -- your humble correspondent called it the best album of the year. That's irony for you.)

It didn't help that Ryan's label, A&M/Interscope, soon left him a casualty of the Merger Wars that eventually consolidated just about the entire music industry into a giant cabal/conglomerate, cutting staff like dead tree limbs and dumping hundreds of acts onto the side of that lost highway. Or that he reappeared the next year (on Will Kimbrough's WaxySilver label) with the bleak, mid-tempo Concussion, a dusty picturebook of hard-edged characters whose lives had taken a detour somewhere on the back roads of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. But if Concussion and Ryan's two Internet-only, D.I.Y. follow-ups -- Dissent From the Living Room and Hopeless to Hopeful -- were the sound of an artist struggling to maintain his identity while keeping all four wheels on the road, Regret Over the Wires documents the emotional correction after a particularly scary fishtail. It's the sound of a distinctive artist reclaiming and refining his voice, leaving his past -- both musical and mental -- in the rear-view mirror.

This is immediately evident in the wistful but resolved opener "Return To Me," which unfolds slowly over a faintly electronic shuffle that whispers echoes of Grin's layered ballads. "I can't return to you," Ryan allows in the pensive but optimistic chorus. "You must / Return to me / That's the deal," he states with firmness, as much to his audience, it seems, as to the lost loved one the narrator addresses. It's a sentiment he expresses without the gruff melancholy of songs like "Irrelevant" or "Sunk;" his line in the sand is drawn with a surprising tenderness, even as he unspools his words with a sense of intricacy even Eminem would admire: "You'll murder me, I know you will / Still I'm wishin' / That I could change this / That you would open / I keep hopin' / For a cure, for some medicine / Just one conversation."

"Return To Me" sets the tone, both lyrically and atmospherically, for much of what follows, from "Trouble Doll"'s sympathetic concern for a wounded soul to the chiming guitar and hopeful resignation ("I'm in love with a tragedy /...Just as sad as the words we'd say / It's all gone in an instant") of "I Can't Steal You." In contrast to the dense fortifications that added color to the ballads on Grin, here Ryan tints his slower numbers with faint percussive shadings. On "Every Good Thing," he commiserates with a former fellow traveler: "It's just so many things / That this living brings / Sometimes it's easy / Sometimes it stings," he almost snarls, before bestowing the ultimate benediction of the lost lover -- "Every good thing / I want it all for you" -- against a softly strummed guitar, as wisps of electric-guitar hum fade in and out of the background like distant foghorns.

As befitting Regret's calmer, more seasoned emotional outlook, even its rocking numbers sport softer edges, although not so soft as to become dulled. "The Little Things" (an early version of which appeared on Dissent) affects a spectral rockabilly gait, interspersed with waves of shimmering guitar, while "Long Blvd." rides the current of a bouncy, Replacements bass line.

Even "Caged Bird," the album's highlight, makes a virtue of its restraint: Ryan free-associates his disdain for commercial culture ("Soda sells lifestyle") and political gluttony with the full measure of his world-weary voice held at bay. When he intones "A real fighter fights / Whether or not the bell rings / I know why the caged bird sings," his venom seeps through the cracks, atop a visceral drumbeat that keeps things at simmer without succumbing to the temptation to bang and crash into full-on rock catharsis. "Caged Bird" echoes Ryan's best politically charged number, Grin's "The World is on Fire," and does so more effectively than Regret's other socially conscious anthem, "I Hope Your God Has Mercy On Mine." Against a vaguely trip-hop beat bolstered by occasional swatches of violin, Ryan delivers a straight-ahead polemic in a sing-song-y melody that lacks "Caged Bird"'s assured imagery.

Like Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen, Ryan's always sung as if his every line were wrenched, bloody and raw, from his own experience, his peace of mind nicked by May Day's "razor of doubt." But on Regret Over the Wires, he appears to have struck the perfect balance of poignancy and perspective, the bitter and the sweet. "Songs are souvenirs / For the peace that hasn't come," he sings on "The Little Things," and Regret offers many such tchotchkes, brief snippets of acceptance ("Return To Me") and redemption ("Skylight"). He even allows himself a smile or two, implicit in the playfulness of the country-tinged "Nails," the rollicking lost-love rave-up "Come Home" and the buoyantly catchy rocker "Sweetie."

Regret Over the Wires reaffirms Matthew Ryan's voice in the cluttered choir of sensitive singer-songwriters. Given a chance -- by the music-buying public, the fickle music press and even Ryan himself -- it'll establish him as a leader of that pack, speeding back along that highway, ahead of similar but less distinctive or affecting artists as Josh Rouse, Ron Sexsmith or (with any luck) Ryan Adams. As Regret makes encouragingly clear, he's certainly ready.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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