Eric Matthews devotes a lot of space in the booklet for Foundation Sounds, his third solo full-length, to explaining the title. He avers it has to do with the essence of a musician’s art.
We wouldn’t expect anything less from Matthews. He was a member of orchestral indie group Cardinal, with Australian singer/songwriter Richard Davies, whose 1994 self-titled one-off was an immaculately produced, self-consciously grown-up sounding rebuke of/response to the then-nascent lo-fi movement. Though said album (re-released on Empyrean in 2004) is, in retrospect, probably too arch for its own good, its influence has been broad and indisputable; notable albums ranging from Elliott Smith‘s Figure 8 to, more recently, the Clientele’s Strange Geometry owe a significant part of their DNA to the “Eleanor Rigby”/Bryter Layter channeling that was Cardinal.
Matthews largely crafted the sound of the Cardinal record, and he has spent his solo career mining similar sonic territory. In the past ten years he has refined the sound more than expanded on it — tried to produce, according to the Matthews-penned statement in the CD booklet for Foundation Sounds, “the purest Eric Matthews statement yet.” He claims to have achieved it with Foundation Sounds.
Like Paul McCartney on McCartney, Matthews wrote and sang all the songs, played all the instruments (except the clarinet passage on “Start of the Meltdown”), and recorded and produced the album. Clearly, he knows what he’s doing. It’s hard, in listening to the album, not to be struck by the level of detail and virtuosity evident; the songs are without exception well-played, densely layered and meticulously crafted. (I defy the listener to find a single error in the performances and production.)
But whereas McCartney was airy and had an endearing sense of humor about it, Foundation Sounds is airtight and unsmiling, the sound of a man locked who has locked himself into a windowless room for hundreds of hours. “Start of the Meltdown” has Matthews imparting the following lyrics in his less rangy Nick Drake voice over a sort of creepily mid-1990s-sounding backing track: “You could see ruins inside my head/ Given all of those prophesies never read/ The start of the meltdown, this time we’re dead/ fabled last season of such we’ve lead, ourselves into.” To his credit, Matthews seems to have recognized this and tossed in some lighter numbers (“All the Clowns”). He has put to good use a vaguely jazzy (albeit in a Bryter Layter kind of way) all-Matthews horn section. But almost everything else is monochrome self-seriousness. Which maybe wouldn’t be so bad if Foundation Sounds weren’t basically a double album, seventeen tracks long.
For some reason, like McCartney post-Beatles and pre-Wings, Matthews feels he must go it alone, but he’s mistaken. If anything, Foundation Sounds is proof that Matthews needs someone else — not a crutch but a foil, someone to pull him out of his own self-orthodoxy and into the world, someone to buy him a shot of Jagermeister when necessary. For lack of a better, similarly accessible analogy, he needs his Lennon. Like Richard Davies. Seems unlikely, but you never know.