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Matt Bauer (and the Clay's Ferry Bridge)

NANDINA  •  Matt Bauer

Once in a long while, I hear a piece of music, a song or even a whole album, that seems not merely valuable to me but also important. Where there was no apparent exit, it casually opens a door to where music might go next and whispers, "This way." Although I recommend Matt Bauer's CD, Nandia, because I love listening to it, I also believe that anyone who has an interest in how songs are constructed would do well to buy a copy and explore what Bauer has created and the possibilities it reveals.

The album starts with a nearly normal-sounding six seconds or so: acoustic guitar, banjo, and mandolin, doing something familiar with each other. But a tiny amount of the very beginning is shaved away, almost as though the engineer didn't hit the record button in time. To me, those opening few bars resemble an item from an architectural salvage yard--like a section of vintage banister. And to my ear, those first six seconds are the last conventional thing that occurs on the CD. I interpret the intro as the artist's way of saying that this music began about 60 or 70 years ago and, as a point of reference, here's a taste of what already happened. What he gets down to after that is something brand new. The traditional sound hasn't been "modernized" with spices borrowed from Hip-hop, Jazz, or any school of electronic music--it just feels matter-of-factly like next week rather than a few years back.

On my first listen, as the first song's first verse got underway, I braced myself slightly, reflexively. I didn't know if I could trust him not to spoil the mood by going to one of those I'm-a-songwriter-watch-me-songwrite choruses. But no ruining chorus came. In fact, there was no chorus at all--only a phrase repeated at the end of each verse to give the song its framing. I noticed the language he was using--there were words in play that you don't hear in songs but might find in a good letter from a well-read and observant pal. When the song ended, I wanted to hear it again, but kept moving forward, curious.

The second cut is only a minute and thirty seconds long. Acoustic guitar, with a second part played on the banjo, doing what I always wish a banjo would do. Again something really interesting about the lyrics. What is he saying? Beautiful phrases, the dry, compelling voice. A feeling of snapshots, of moving through worlds. When the singing starts, the banjo goes quiet, leaving just voice and guitar. When the words stop, the banjo returns with these steady, off-the-beat, plucked chords. Nothing extra. Nothing unnecessary. It reached me in a surprising way, as if I'd been longing for it--waiting years and years for exactly that sound to come out of the speakers.

The album takes its name from a type of bamboo, praised for its beauty and, gardeners are cautioned, notorious for its invasiveness. For days I couldn't play anything else. Months later, Nandina continues daily to yield pleasures that no other can rival.

At some point it dawned on me that the lines in Bauer's songs don't often rhyme. He makes the absence of rhyming sound absolutely natural. His lyrics seem rooted in something like free verse poetry rather than persistent older modes. At times overtly narrative, at other times more abstract, they always convey direct feeling and "emotional sense"--a level of meaning that might be impossible to paraphrase but is completely understood within the body. I'd quote some of them here, but I don't want to deprive you of the experience of initially living with his songs strictly as audio input, then, your wonder aroused, going to the artist's website and reading all the lyrics in one sitting.

Nandina has an overall vibe of modesty and, if not exactly calm, then of something quieted. But the singer's urgency is no less fierce for being partly contained. The music, which features occasional percussion and a keyboard once, in addition to the mandolin, guitar (electric and acoustic), and banjo, turns out to all be played by Matt Bauer and recorded in his home studio, with the exception of the strings on the closing cut. (I recently read that the unexpected, Oriental-flavored clanging that appears midway through the otherwise Appalachian-feeling instrumental, "Triangle Mountain," is Bauer "hitting a small frosted-glass floor lamp with an old beat-up microphone.") The recording has a genuine intimacy that perfectly suits the material.

Some art provides us with a dream to enter, a place to escape to and return from refreshed. Some comes to accompany us as we plow along, helping us continue to do what we can't figure out how to quit, or to pursue what we love but have to work at hard. Some art awakens us from a restless sleep, confirming our knowing that certain habits or other aspects of our lives have outlived their purpose and must now be abandoned. While I listened to Nandina, I realized that this is the last record review I'm ever going to write. There are a couple of things I really want to do before I miss my chance, but I'll need to focus all my creative energy there if I hope to accomplish them. The day comes. Take care.
• James Meyers

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