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Purple Haze

 

Matthew Ryan: From A Late Night High Rise

00:02:59, 2006

Rating: 3.7

 

Posted: December 18, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Matthew Ryan has proven that his grainy tenor is adaptable to a variety of backdrops, from the roots-inflected rock of his gripping debut May Day to the arena-filling ambitions of the undervalued East Autumn Grin to the default pensive-singer-songwriter mode that informs all of his releases to some degree (most notably the sparse Concussion). Like, say, Lucinda Williams, he mines impressive nuance and meaning from his restricted range. Whether cruising in ruminating acoustic mode or wringing emotional truths from disheartening circumstances against a clamorous rock beat, he sets a tone of embattled optimism that invests a line like "Down here love's the only gun I trust" with more substance than a more conventionally gifted singer could ever get away with.

It's forgivable, therefore, to labor under the illusion that Ryan's voice does most of the heavy lifting: to buy into that whole cliché of "He could sing the phone book and make it sound like Dylan at his world-weariest." From A Late Night High Rise, however, confirms just how crucial the right musical setting plays in his music.

From A Late Night High Rise is a deeply personal record -- informed, according to press materials, by the untimely death of a close friend and the news that Ryan's brother was sentenced to 30 years in prison (the latter explicitly addressed in the spoken-word "The Complete Family"). The singer-songwriter's durable sense of hope is still intact, but the album's spare, remote vibe, sustained by melancholy keyboard arrangements that at times echo the chilly synth-pop of the early '80s, comes close to overpowering that hard-won sanguinity.

When Ryan offers a snippet of grace like "And if you wake up scared / I hope you're not alone," from the affecting "Babybird," it's all the more effective in contrast to the whispery anguish that drenches the opening "Follow the Leader." And it takes longer than expected to relax into the gentle rewards of the quietly pretty "Providence," given the song's distracting foundation, which recalls the icy preprogrammed beats of a vintage Casio. Eventually a sense of faith, shaken but resolved, does win out over the impressionistic haze (so aptly echoed in the purplish cover art), making it easier, on repeated listens, to appreciate the sentiments offered in "And Never Look Back," "Victory Waltz" and "Misundercould."

In a way, From A Late Night High Rise is Ryan's most emotionally honest effort, in the sense that listening to it more closely approximates the struggle played out in its lyrics. It's easy to key right in to the catharsis offered by May Day and East Autumn Grin or the reflections of Concussion or Regret Over the Wires. It's a little more work to crack the prevailing atmosphere of wee-hours introspection, feeding on its own sadness, that informs High Rise, an album that's slower than is usual in Ryan's catalog to negotiate a shaky truce with its demons.

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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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