One of the most fascinating things about Kristian Matsson is how he’s able to take very familiar folk sounds and turn them into something that seems fresh and exciting. His first two albums as The Tallest Man on Earth were built solely on his raspy vocal and either an acoustic guitar or a piano. The songs are also almost entirely home recorded outside of a traditional studio, giving them an additional ramshackle quality that speaks well to Bob Dylan’s earliest material. Matsson is from Sweden, but he uses and reveres classic American folk as his template. His last full length The Wild Hunt was very propulsive and catchy, with an emotional core that often made you feel like the man was playing as if his life depended on it. Just listening to him wail on “You’re Going Back” or “King of Spain” either sucked you in completely or left you out in the cold, as his abrasive yet heartfelt vocal isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. On his third long player There’s No Leaving Now, the gears have slightly changed (or evolved, if you will) for The Tallest Man on Earth. The music still retains that slightly gritty, home recorded quality, however Matsson plays around with multi-tracking a little, creating fuller arrangements with more instruments. “Revelation Blues” is where the extra bits are most evident – a lightly brushed snare drum along with small flourishes of piano and woodwinds compliment the main melody strung together by a carefully picked guitar. Other than that, only the occasional slide guitar on top of an acoustic is an indicator there’s more instrumentation than usual. The alt-country quiet of “Bright Lanterns” is probably where that’s implemented best. Outside of the guitar-driven tracks, the title track differentiates itself simply by being a piano-centered ballad in the same vein of “Kids on the Run” from the last record. Matsson does an excellent job wrenching the sadness out of the song. Such powerful displays of emotion were some of The Wild Hunt‘s strongest points. There’s No Leaving Now loses some of that primarily due to more languid and relaxed melodies where the vocals don’t require so many acrobatics. The album’s two most energized songs “1904” and “Wind and Walls” are also two of its best, even though their lyrics don’t entirely make sense. It’s the way he sings lines like, “But the lesson is vague and the lightning shows a deer with her mind on the moor/and now something with the sun is just different/since they shook the earth in 1904,” that somehow makes them seem far more coherent than they appear when written down. Still, not everything on the record is so convincing or vibrant, as songs like “Leading Me Now” and “Little Brother” breeze past pleasantly but forgettably too. Matsson can and has done better work than this, and three albums in it might be time to start asking if his particular troubadour brand of folk is wearing a bit thin. It’s nice to hear him spreading his wings just a little and fleshing out some of the tracks a bit more, but it means very little in the end if the songs aren’t worthy of that expansion. Ironically, There’s No Leaving Now often comes off like Matsson has gone away on vacation, perhaps to the beach depicted on the album cover. Wonderful as it can be to take some time for yourself and forget about your troubles, it’s no way to live. Sooner or later the world will come find you. Let’s hope for the next album that The Tallest Man on Earth pulls his head out of the clouds and reconnects with the emotions and excitement that made his earlier records so vital and fascinating.
Tag: the tallest man on earth
Earlier this year, Kristian Matsson released “The Wild Hunt”, his second album under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth. It remains one of the strongest releases of 2010, highly engaging andworking with the most basic tools of a singer-songwriter platform. Armed with just an acoustic guitar (or occasionally a piano) and a voice, Matsson’s singing and songwriting style both have echoes of early Bob Dylan in the best sorts of ways. The songs evoke the desolate highways of America, lined on both sides by nothing but sun, sand and cacti as you roll past in your car. All this from a guy that has called Sweden home for his entire life. For those that just couldn’t get enough of Matsson’s sparse folk stylings, he’s yet another artist pulling double duty this year by releasing additional music in the form of an EP. While you’d expect such small collections of tracks to be castoffs or b-sides, Matsson claims the songs that appear on “Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird” were all written this past summer after “The Wild Hunt” was released. And while these five songs are supposed to function as a standalone collection representative of a certain place and time, they tend to fall right in line with what we’ve come to expect from The Tallest Man on Earth, though with a small surprise or two.
One little difference between “The Wild Hunt” and the “Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird” EP is overall mood. All the hallmarks of The Tallest Man on Earth’s sound are there, including the complex acoustic guitar picking and relatively cryptic but always fascinating lyrics, yet the new EP is a bit of a darker affair. Matsson sounds more reflective and down on his luck than before, and that results in songs that forego much of the triumphant melodies found on the last album. The exploration of this heavier emotion is primarily only limited to the lyrics though, as there’s still some pep in his guitar. Speaking of that, if this EP contains one singular shocker, it’s the use of electric guitar on “The Dreamer”. For two albums, Matsson never once picked up an electric guitar, and perhaps as part of an experiment, he does so here. There’s a tiny bit of reverb thrown in for good measure too, and the whole thing is pretty unexpected. For a guy that makes his living with just one instrument and a voice, a change like that is a big deal, even if the quality stays consistent (which it does). He could have done virtually the same thing with his acoustic (minus the reverb) and it would have been right in line with the rest of the EP. Why he “went electric” that one time remains a mystery, and while the difference is a little jarring, there’s a strange comfort to see him mixing it up too.
As a full EP of original songs, “Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird” is yet another delightful release from The Tallest Man on Earth. What he takes from these songs in regards to future releases remains to be seen, but so long as Kristian Matsson continues to measure out his music in a modest and heartfelt way, he’ll continue to be an artist worth paying attention to. He’s ostensibly proof that the folk singer-songwriter format isn’t dead, just in need of a strong voice and smart guitar player. There’s very good reason why you’ll get deadly silent crowds at Tallest Man on Earth shows, and it’s not just because they’re all trying to hear. The guy could be playing at your local Starbucks and people would wait to order so as to not interrupt a song. Simply put, not only is the music itself impressive, but the way it’s presented is as well. The albums and this EP give you a pretty good set of expectations, and the live show delivers on those in spades. If you’ve not heard The Tallest Man on Earth before, get at least one of his albums first. Then buy this EP. Then go see him live. They’re all essentials for an artist that may very well be our next Bob Dylan, albeit without the political bent.
It is remarkably easy to say that The Tallest Man on Earth (aka Kristian Matsson) is the heir apparent to Bob Dylan’s folk throne. Not only do the guy’s songs tend to have the raw acoustics of Dylan at his most heartfelt, along with some excellent wordplay, but what really sells the idea is Matsson’s somewhat nasal and gravelly voice. I’m assuming that after an EP and a debut record, he’s sick of all the Dylan references, and so for the rest of my review of his new album “The Wild Hunt,” I’ll do my best to avoid such comparisons. Just recognize from this point on that if you’re a fan of early Dylan material, The Tallest Man on Earth really feels like a continuation of those songs and ideas, similar to how Dylan felt like a new folk hero back in the day while following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie. .
For those of you just now giving The Tallest Man on Earth a go for the first time, let me do my best to convince you that this is an artist you need to be giving more attention to. For much of “The Wild Hunt,” as with previous Tallest Man recordings, Matsson keeps the songs as sparse as humanly possible. That means just a singular acoustic guitar and voice most of the time, and quite frankly that’s good enough. You do get a small bit of banjo on the opening title track, and the closer pulls a surprise by trading in the acoustic guitar for a piano. Much of the new album is sprightly and jaunty though, maintaining a rough folk edge but at a tempo that’s quick enough to hold your attention and keep your toe tapping. There’s only a couple slow ballads on this record, placed strategically in the tracklisting to maximize their effect, and Matsson also uses them to an advantage by delivering some of his most highly emotive vocal performances to date. The guy may not have the biggest vocal range in the world, but given the right backing music, such as the carefully crafted folk he has here, he works it to the absolute best of his abilities.
The good news, for those of you introduced to The Tallest Man on Earth via his debut full length “Shallow Grave” or the self-titled EP before it, is that “The Wild Hunt” feels like a continuation of both those recordings. Given the strength of those earlier recordings, you might be wary of the thought that Matsson is a one trick pony whose only real skill is being able to write a good folk song. It would be a problem at this point had the material not been so strong. Plus, Matsson continues to grow as a songwriter, and his words are more vivid and intricate on this record than they ever have been before, and the additional emotion he puts into these songs is also a strong display of progression in a positive direction.
Should you have been lucky enough to have seen The Tallest Man on Earth perform live in the past couple years, either thanks to a headlining tour or opening up for similar artists such as Bon Iver and John Vanderslice, I hope he won you over with his starkly wonderful folk songs. Between Matsson and somebody like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, I really do hope there’s yet another revival of folk in the next couple years. I understand a folk revival has happened a number of times before, but given the brilliance of some of these quiet acoustic records in the past couple years, it’d be nice to see some of these great artists get their due. “The Wild Hunt” marks yet another strong entry into the folk canon, and it also makes for one of the strongest releases so far this calendar year. You might be kicking yourself later on should you let this record pass you by, so I hope you’ll give The Tallest Man on Earth a try. Unlike the shakily hyped trends in music recently such as lo-fi and glo-fi, it’s really great to give a more traditional and “classic”-sounding record some press. Some trends just never go out of style, and I hope folk music continues to stay that way.