Why anthologize a guy no one has heard of? That’s a reasonable question concerning Matthew Larkin Cassell. The discography of the Bay Area singer-songwriter-musician reveals nothing of the journey he has taken to modest Internet fame. He wrote and independently pressed a few hundred copies of an album called Pieces in 1977 and hustled it on the streets to any passersby. He did the same thing again in 1978, except with an EP entitled Matt The Cat. In 1980 he downsized both the print run and record length to an untitled 7-inch. And then 30 years later, all of the above gets reissued as The Complete Works on heavyweight undie Stone’s Throw Records. Clearly, something more than Cassell’s c.v. is required to make sense of his story.
For better or worse, Cassell took the private-press route. And like so many other private-press artists, that was it. His records scarcely went past his own hands. He spent the subsequent decades living life: He went back to school, gigged professionally until the early-2000s and eventually dropped music to work with special-education students in a local middle school. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Cassell, his records traveled to dusty 50-cent bins and dustier flea markets in Mexico City, where they were discovered by eagle-eyed crate diggers. One digger circulated an MP3 of a track from Pieces, “In My Life,” that prompted another digger, Daniel Werman, to reach out to Cassell. Cassell soon thereafter received his long-awaited moment in the industry: He met ace diggers and DJs Kon and Amir (who had used the aforementioned track to open their Kings Of Diggin’ compilation). He also discovered his music had been sampled by People Under The Stairs (“You”) and Madlib (Madvillain’s “3.214” or “Pi”) without his authorization, so he reached out. The latter contact led to the record you should be holding in your hands today.
The story is borderline Lifetime, but the happy ending is actually for listeners. The Complete Works is awash with stone-cold vibes that are both odd yet familiar. Throughout Cassell both plays piano and guitar and sings with a minimal amount of affect like the homie at the BBQ that everyone actually wants to hear. At his most complex, Cassell’s music is informed structurally by the wide range of post-bop jazz. “Heaven,” the subject of Madlib’s sampling interest, recalls the modal and fusion jazz of Return to Forever-era Chick Corea.
Yet, more often songs like “Holiday” and “One Night” use sparing amounts of complex riffs to embellish otherwise simple grooves. Time and rhythm frequently shift, but in a playful, Laura Nyro sort of way. On “In My Life,” think the decelerando on the “sassafrass and moonshine” line from “Stone Soul Picnic” and you’re in the right ballpark. The music is clearly from another time, such as his one instance of Luther-like vamping at the end of “All I’m Missing Is You” and the disco-ish backbeat of “Beggin’ To Stay,” but chilled enough for the annual spring and summer lovefest just ’round the corner. Considering how rarely music can age gracefully, The Complete Works should be a welcome addition to your Summer of Love 2010 edition.