So many albums with that fundamental set-up of piano, guitar, and drums deserve a good listen. The recordings often conjure up a distant golden past, and the best of the lot are testimonies to the few things that ultimately make great music — melody, words, a compelling voice.
Such an approach is also extremely ballsy. Take Amigo Row, Matt Suggs’ sophomore solo release. Here Suggs, half of the former lo-fi duo Butterglory, champions a bare-bones style, clothed in only his songs and the musicianship of his backing band, Thee Higher Burning Fire. There’s no doubting the self-assurance of this experienced musician, but this album, burdened with one too many lifeless tunes, fails to make a lasting impression.
Admittedly, the opener “Father” shows a lot of promise. Suggs lays it on the line, delivering the first verse over a stark metronome-like beat and two ominous piano chords. The song showcases his wry, melodic style and roots feel. Set in a forgotten backwoods corner, where a young man is about to be served justice by a faceless mob, “Father” is a peephole revealing a simpler yet darker American past. One last appeal to his father is his only concern: “Father, do we agree,” Suggs sings, “. . . that the time we shared here was not lost?”
Although the subject matter of “Father” is a welcome departure from the work of your typical singer/songwriter, Suggs returns to familiar territory soon enough. Wasting his writer’s gift of character and story, he doggedly sticks to the ho-hum dilemmas of dating. It’s a good thing the instrumental tracks of Amigo Row at least sound diverse, from the barroom blues “Jonathan Montgomery,” which snarls with attitude; to the psychedelic “Tehachapi Girl,” which infuses a saloon-like melody with a spacey organ; to the lively “Calm Down,” with a rollicking bass line that wouldn’t be out of place on the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society.
These latter songs may be the best and worst examples of what Suggs can accomplish with his limited voice, which is soulful enough to earn comparisons to Ray Davies, but is also cursed with a range so narrow he seems to weakly flail for every note. This is no problem on “Tehachapi Girl,” where his grasping for notes complements his grasping for the ideal California love, but in a song like “Calm Down,” with a full-ensemble chorus, Suggs’ murmuring is all but lost amid the instruments.
No doubt, this warm, traditional record lives up to its title. When a recording holds so close to the few simple things, listeners can feel like they have an amigo in Suggs. Unfortunately, he may be a friend they find tuning out for more stimulating company.