K Bay could be a step forward or backward, depending on how you look at it.
After the highly experimental Broken Mirror this is a return to more conventional songwriting territory, but if you’re after the straightforward songwriting of Big Inner or Fresh Blood, think again.
Matthew E. White’s experimenting isn’t over, only now he seems to be thinking bigger. Instead of disassembling the songwriting form like before, he appears to be trying to expand it beyond its limitations.
So on K Bay he’s created unique aural amalgams using two distinct versions of each song and blending them. It’s a fascinating approach, but can it work across the course of an album? Well, yes-ish. But mostly yes.
The yes’s are plenty. Take Electric, an Embryonic-era Flaming Lips banger, bristling with incredible energy, sunshine and southern soul.
Or how Never Had It Better’s 60’s opening shifts suddenly into Bond-esque rhumba. Then this dramatic-and-sunny-at-the-same-time tune builds into a dramatic amalgam of soundtrack flourishes and funky soul. You don’t know where you’re going or how you’ll get wherever White is taking you, but what a ride.
And the inventiveness doesn’t stop there, songs twist and turn with genius. Genuine Hesitation is an electro slap with a folksy/bluesy undercurrent, like Snapped Ankles meets ZZ Top. It’s claustrophobic, frenetic, clammy, but with a wry sincerity.
Nested has an ominous, menacing bass intro which sounds like a more friendly version of Screen Shot by The Swans before gears suddenly shift into an EDM reimagining of T Rex with rock’ n’ roll/Beach Boys ‘oohs’ and ‘aah’s all filtered and fucked up into a dance-rock cacophony. Weird but wonderful.
Judy is just great fun (think Bob Seger rewriting the Rocky Horror Picture Show), dripping with rock and roll flourishes but undermining every one of them at every turn.
In fact, the musical montage production style adds fascinating flourishes throughout each track, bringing little surprises and bursts of the unexpected at every turn.
Yet it does lead to a few songs probably being a little longer than is necessary, and some are made a little more wonky/wobbly than they probably need to be, which can make it a little disorientating at times (though you feel that might be the point). However when it works, like on Electric, it’s captivating.
What also adds interest here is White’s lyrical fixation with place, legacy and what life teaches us. From the song titles to the vignettes he paints and lessons he offers on tracks like Hedged In Darkness and Never Had It Better, White seems to be trying to make sense of his life so far. But does it all add up?
Yes, it does. Some parts, like Take Your Time (And Find That Orange To Squeeze) might not be as successful as they could be, but this is probably only due to their sheer ambition.
White is attempting, on every song – and we mean every song – to achieve something transcendent. And to be honest, in a few places, he may have been better leaving some a little more straight.
Instead, he’s gone maximalist, but when it works it is often mesmerising. Like he says on K Bay’s standout, but also simplest, track Shine A Light For Me: ‘Every chance worth taking is worth two of the rest’, and White takes every chance he can on this album, and that’s to be admired whether it works or not.
So let’s thank the lord that it does, time and time again.