Image Courtesy of Scott Matthew
Review by Sheridan Morley
How difficult is it to unlearn something?
If you’ve ever attempted to teach yourself to hold a pen differently, or if you still haven’t come to terms with the fact that Pluto was never a planet, you’ll understand the struggle of unlearning – of reconsidering what was previously fact in your mind, or of un-perfecting a skill you had worked so hard to perfect in the first place.
Listening to music, after all, is a skill. In its purest form, it is the reception of sound by our ears, combined with the ability to use our brains to interpret and convert said sound into understanding. It is in this interpretation, though, that listening becomes a polygamous marriage of physicality to experience and emotion – in a split second, we, as unique individuals, apply layers of our own differing experiences to the same sound, and decide to like it (or not) accordingly. From our peers who decide to like those songs we reject as affronts to our very being, we demand reformation: “How can you even STAND Justin Bieber?! Get thee to the JB Hi-fi rock aisle at once!” For those songs we accept as our favourites, however, we act as aggressive defenders: “Bohemian Rhapsody is SO the best song of all time!” It is these songs that become hits; and that we want to explore and share and hear performed again, and again, and again.
If you think I’ve just taken the most roundabout route possible to overhype a covers album, you’re dead wrong. Scott Matthew’s fourth full-length release, Unlearned, is more than a covers album – it is a creative reimagining of the favourite songs of three generations of music listeners. Like a renewal of wedding vows after decades, Matthew challenges you to reaffirm your love for those very songs that you learned to love so long ago, regardless of their genre. This time, though, he wants you to do it his way.
The tracks Matthew showcases on Unlearned are deliberately eclectic. Iconic songwriters ranging from Whitney Houston to Neil Young are featured, and all rebroadcast in his signature rich, resounding tones. The album opens with what could be mistaken for a Birds of Tokyo keyboard arrangement partnered with a Boards of Canada soundscape. When Scott’s smooth, low vocals enter, it is a surprise and a delight to realise he’s crooning his way through the first lines of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. A pretty, nylon-string guitar introduces the second half of the first verse, and ever so gradually, the track builds through layers of keyboard to present a beautiful, yet restrained, tribute to a classic love song.
From here, we melt into a gently strummed ukulele to introduce an unlikely version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, joined by a beautiful piano progression – a perfect nod to the ballads of Whitney’s era. The track features one of the album’s only percussive elements, a brushed snare in the chorus, which ends almost too abruptly leading into the second verse, losing a little momentum. We’re quickly distracted, though, by a dazzling three-part harmony in the second chorus, and a decidedly modern, un-cheesy take on the “Don’t You Wanna Dance” bridge to finish. Scott’s voice is surprisingly good in this range, though it’s one more native to a female vocalist – the intensity of such a naturally low voice singing up high really drives an emotional impact that couldn’t have been achieved by a female if they tried.
The sure stand-out track of Unlearned is Joy Division’s classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – probably the closest fit to Scott’s vocals which, in the right (or wrong) context, could sound deliciously creepy. The same piano, drowned in sustain, is an excellent substitute for the original instrumentation and effects, while an electric bass references that iconic bass line, but subtly enough to remain cheeky. At just 4:04, Scott rejects the 80s tendency to milk a good groove for all it’s worth, instead including all that needs to be there for maximum impact. It’s easy to see he’s grown up listening to this song. He demonstrates a devastating intensity and phenomenal clarity of tone up high that hasn’t yet emerged on this album. The worst thing is that it’s buried all the way down at number 9 on the track listing.
The more soft rock-inclined of you will be chuffed to note that Radiohead’s “No Surprises” managed to feature on this album, transformed into a ukulele masterpiece. The addition of a female backing vocal separates the texture of this track nicely from the others. While a beautiful track in its own right, those who have been known to throw their support behind the original version will be endlessly frustrated by the omission of that minor turnaround at the end of the main riff – probably the most interesting feature of the original – which instead lands flat with a standard major turnaround. When it finally appears, though, no earlier than the second last chord of the song, you can almost hear the echo of relieved groans from Radiohead devotees worldwide.
The chance to join Scott on this journey through his musical memories is a privilege, and along the way, we start to get a sense of unity in that these favourites of ours were once someone else’s favourites, too. And not just Scott’s – other selections, namely “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “Jesse”, have been covered extensively throughout the ages by such greats as Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, Janis Ian, Bryan Ferry and more. Hours of fascination could surely be had by considering how each arrangement came to be, but if you don’t have the time, Scott’s stunning homages are enough. Just quietly, I’d love to hear Scott’s rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his next release.
Scott Matthew is touring for Timber and Steel in May. The full dates are below:
Sunday 11th May – Brew, Brisbane, QLD
Monday 12th May – Mandala Organic Arts Cafe, Gold Coast, QLD
Tuesday 13th May – Pure Pop Records, Melbourne, VIC
Wednesday 14th May – The Toff In Town, Melbourne, VIC
Sunday 18th May -The Vanguard, Sydney, NSW