One of two things can happen when you discover a slept upon masterpiece. Either you can feel special, like you’re in on a secret that so few others are privy to or you can feel genuinely irate, which is how I felt when I discovered Matt Jones, another phenom from the mounting scene of the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area that I call home.
It’s not abnormal to go to a show blind in Ann Arbor and walk out impressed. The fact of the matter is that it’d be shocking to be anything but impressed because the local scene here is fraught with remarkable musicians. With few exceptions, everyone here is good. But after a while, that fact starts to spoil you and “good” stops being good enough. Soon, after seeing your umpteenth “good” show, you don’t want a “good” show anymore, nor do you want to discover a “good” new band. You want a great show by a great band. You want amazing. You want remarkable. You want someone to pick up their guitar and take your breath away and knock your socks off and do all those other cliche things like make your heart skip a beat.
I didn’t think that would happen when I walked into The Getup, a vintage clothing store in downtown Ann Arbor that’s taken to hosting acoustic shows inside it’s, uh, cozy walls (Note to The Getup: I love you, I do, but it sure would be nice if ya’ll had the money to expand a tiny bit!). In fact, going to see Matt Jones and The Bell Beat won out that particular night over other Michigan shows because The Getup is within walking distance of my house and I’m currently living car free. It was a matter of convenience, not passion, and I expected to leave The Getup satisfied, possibly mildly impressed. I certainly didn’t expect to be angry.
It might be puzzling exactly why I was upset. You see, Jones performed admirably. He was remarkable. During his hour long set, I felt myself staring at him, mouth agape and eyes wide, blown away by the sheer talent he exuded, with the remarkable Colette Alexander on cello and the deeply talented Misty Lyn lending her impossibly beautiful vocals on nearly every song. The show was amazing. In fact, it was one of the more amazing shows I’ve seen in the past five years. But the fact of the matter is that Jones is too talented to play small shows like this. He’s too talented to be relegated to an opening act, even. Matt Jones should have all the respect in the world for his music and if you shell out $10 for one record in all of 2011, don’t make it Okkervil River. Don’t make it Fleet Foxes. Don’t make it John Vanderslice or any of those other ridiculously amazing new releases that 2011 is bringing forth. Make it The Black Path by Matt Jones.
From the opening notes of “Threadlines” – An ominous cello, a gently picked guitar, and a toy soldier snare drum – you realize you’re being exposed to something of interest and when Jones begins singing, you understand just how interesting that something is. As with most of The Black Path‘s songs, “Threadlines” finds Jones spitting out his lyrics at a breakneck pace. His words take multiple listens to decode and are heavy on poetic word play, a fact that found my friend likening Jones’ phrasing and lyrics to a male Fiona Apple. That comparison is not entirely inappropriate as The Black Path does occasionally evoke the Jon Brion oddities that peppered Apple’s best release, When The Pawn Hits… Jones seems to combine influences that were probably long dead and gone before the time Apple was even born with more contemporary artists, however, and it almost seems a shame to call Jones the “male anybody”. There is a familiar quality about Jones but he seems to remind most everyone I know of someone that they just can’t put their finger on. After his show at The Getup, my cohorts and I spent a good chunk of time throwing names around, trying to figure out just who it was that Jones evoked so. Eventually, I decided that it was no one, that Jones was such an interesting meld of all the musicians idolized by both himself and my social circle that he had an undeniably familiar quality to him. Hearing Jones felt like passing by a childhood acquaintance on the street. You know them and you know that you know them but still, you’re uncertain if it’s actually them.
Jones’ sophomore LP is filled with outrageously appealing moment, from the heartbreaking beauty of “Holy Light” (A song which features the lyrics “You took the soul from my songs because the soul was bad” which, when heard live, were enough to make me catch my own breath) to the gentle beauty of “Marble Sleeves”, a song that plays out like a beautiful lullaby from a half forgotten dream, peppered with horns straight out of a Black Sheep Boy era Will Sheff’s loveliest memory. “Jugglers, Bones, and Blisters” seems as if it’s straight from the soundtrack of a Western you’ve never seen and the cello hook from “Waltzing With Lady Dawn” is so evocative of something that it’s hard to believe you haven’t heard it many times before.
The Black Path has an undeniably Michigan appeal to it, partially due, I’m sure, to the guest spots from Drunken Barn Dance’s Jim Roll, Great Lakes Myth Society’s Timothy Monger, and more revered locals than you can shake a fist at. What keeps Jones from falling into the trappings of being “just another Michigan musician” is the sheer amount of talent he exudes at every turn. His guitar is played with precision. His lyrics are at turns bitingly clever and painfully honest. While The Black Path is a fairly long record – The longest of it’s eleven tracks clocks in at over nine minutes long – it feels deceptively short. “Threadlines”, while being nearly six minutes in length, leaves you wanting more, and that trend is common on The Black Path.
Perhaps the biggest accolade that I can give to Matt Jones is the fact that I have not asked him for a press copy of his record to review. After doing three plus years in the music industry, there are few albums I actually shell out cash for. After all, I usually end up writing about ten to fifteen albums a month – And I end up listening to countless more that I don’t end up reviewing. Buying all those records would send me easily to the poor house. The last record I bought was Okkervil River’s The Stand Ins, two and a half years ago, and honestly, I only bought it to get the free poster that came with the preorder. Jones, however, has released an amazing enough album with The Black Path that I want to give him my money. And I want you to give him your money too. Because Matt Jones is too much of a talent to remain at the level of anonymity that finds him playing to minuscule crowds in his city limits.