Revisionist history has made a hero out of Eric Matthews. When the former Cardinal member released his 1995 solo debut album, "It's Heavy in Here," he performed two impressive feats. First, he produced an elegant, densely orchestrated album of chamber pop, filled with strings, horns and swelling melodies. Second, he released it on Sub Pop, a label based on artists who felt that singing directly into the microphone equaled artistic compromise. For both artist and label, the record was a surprising coup.
It also said a lot about how pop is perceived in the '90s. Time was, saying nice things about Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Syd Barrett and Nick Drake got you laughed out of the room; their embrace of lush arrangements seemed dated and self-indulgent. Feedback-ridden angst being the ruling sensibility, any mention of the f-word -- fluegelhorn -- was rude and contrary to "real" music. But now that time and various reissues have saved Wilson et al. from the dustbin of history, the world is Matthews' for the taking. But on "The Lateness of the Hour," it becomes clear that no matter how hard he's trying, he's not quite worthy of that '60s pantheon.
The major difference is that while the likes of Brian Wilson used horns and strings to articulate a genuine passion, the classically trained Matthews is just chasing after an effect. "Heavy" hinted at some of those shortcomings, but new songs like "Pair of Cherry" or "Festival Fun" display lazy thievery from various Penny Lanes and Scarborough Fairs, and even the Barrett-esque psychedelia of "Dopiness" can't quite remove the false, waxy feel of the record. Matthews' breathy, somnolant vocals are meant to convey some sort of soulfulness, but with the clichéd, lovelorn lyrics he's working with, he mainly sounds like a sort of male geisha, drowning himself in submissive faux self-pity to make himself sound more attractive.
So it's ironic that the album's best moments are those when he tears down his Brill Building façade and turns the guitars up a bit, as on "Everything So Real" and especially "The Pleasant Kind," the one song where Matthews' melodic sensibility doesn't sound grave-robbed. Which shouldn't take anything away from the fact that Matthews is a smart producer, arranger and performer -- if nothing else, "The Lateness of the Hour" sounds charming and fully realized in its own derivative way. But Eric Matthews could stand to file away his copy of "Pet Sounds" for a bit and listen to, say, Eric Matthews, who may very well have some beautiful and intelligent things to say. It wouldn't be the '60s, sure, but at least it would be progress.