Classic Americana in a hugely enjoyable ‘live to tape’ outing.
Matt Owens may well be a man in a hurry…after twenty years in the music business, having first found global success with indie-pop behemoths Noah and the Whale, he released his first solo record in 2019, the follow-up a year later, and now ‘Beer For The Horses’ makes three full-length albums in four years. Recorded live to tape, it quickly dispels any possibility that this might be a rush job – indeed, quite the opposite. Surrounding himself with a skilled band of musicians who understand when to have fun and when to throttle back, this record is an absolute pleasure to hear.
There is a great variety in the songs here, in both music and lyrics, that nonetheless falls squarely in the Americana corner. Acoustic guitars pound out the rhythms, banjos roll gently in the background, fiddle and harmonica add texture and melody, there is some fine electric lead playing, and 60’s organ sounds swirl around too. It is an intoxicating concoction, like shaking hands with an old friend, and it instantaneously provides songs that sound like they have been a part of your life forever.
Owens has a distinctive voice, with an urgent energy to his singing. This is illustrated nowhere better than on the Springsteen-esque opener ‘Genie and the Bottle’, with its plaintive chorus of “Jeannie can make it all go away, but you can never do the same for her”.
There are many lyrical moments of subtlety, with a fine wit on show, sometimes sharp, sometimes more wry, and sometimes with a great empathy for the characters who inhabit these songs. In ‘Where He Goes’, for example, he tells the story of a couple trying hard to make it in hard times, with dreams that will never be realised. They somehow keep going, working two jobs just to pay the mortgage, and trying to feel lucky for the chance to have their own place, while simultaneously feeling that life is passing them by in haze of work and exhaustion. It’s a reflection of the times we live in, and skilfully uses the very personal tale for a larger political point.
Lest things get too serious, though, it’s quickly followed with ‘Drinking By The River’, a blast of harmonica bringing in a hugely catchy song that has hints of Tom Petty or Steve Forbert about it. Indeed, overall this record is a roisterous ride through windows down, widescreen Americana, though the quieter moments add colour and beauty to the journey.
The record ends with two of those quieter moments. ‘Up To Here’ brings a beautiful fiddle line to the most delicate guitar picking, while ‘Numbered Days (For Little Mammoths)’ is an absolute treat, a closing time song with sumptuous music, so easy, so perfect, the band falling in around the laziest of grooves, and slowly building to something of an epic reflection of a life on the road.
This is a hugely enjoyable outing, song after song hitting the mark, beautifully performed, and then mixed to perfection. This is a record to welcome into your life with open arms, full of music that has warmth and joy, and with a few life lessons (and sly sidelong glances at the human state) hidden amongst its words.