A fascinating and underdiscussed consideration of popular music is how the compositional instrument – the instrument upon which a songwriter writes – can have a fundamental and definitive effect on virtually every dimension of the result: the rhythmic, sonic, harmonic and even lyrical tendencies of the writer. In the pre-singer/songwriter age, primary axe was less of an issue because the details of a recording ultimately fell into the hands of highly skilled arrangers with huge paintboxes. After Dylan and the Beatles made it clear that writers were supposed to sing and play their own songs, the inherent properties and propensities of the instrument really began to assert themselves in pop history.
Consider, for example, the piano. While piano rock is as various as guitar rock, there are certain rhythmic sweet spots that just give and give, and that writers will continue to discover for as long as they sit down at the 88: the lightly implied half-time funk feel of a Tori Amos song; the rag inflections of Newman, Nilsson and Zevon; the lumen-folk ambience of a Bruce Hornsby hit; stride and boogie-woogie. Pianos just favor certain kinds of mid-tempo and syncopated grooves – those grooves that allow the instrument’s inherent counterpoint and seven-octave range to drive. From there, the math is simple. Those rhythms favor certain kinds of vocal phrases; the vocal phrases favor certain kind of lyrical expression. Next thing you know, you’re wondering whether we’re playing the instrument or the instrument is playing us.
On their new release Time to Fly, the Mateo & Dougan Band cover a great deal of territory that one might loosely call roots. These include several tussles with a non-binding reggae and island feel (“Lay Down,” “Hey English”); at least one harmonic minor Afro/Cuban noir effort (“Seventeen Years”); a variety of blues, swamp and soul evocations, if no single straight blues; and a buoyant, moving end-of-days ballad that Mr. Hornsby would not be ashamed of (“Time to Fly”). It is indeed a roots record, but one with the keyboard and its rhythmic potentialities at its center. If pressed for a genre, I’d be left with nothing except the awkward “groove-oriented piano songwriter rock,” executed at a very high level.
The Mateo in question is keyboardist and singer/songwriter Carl Mateo, a songwriter and player with a knack for making the not-so-easy sound pretty simple. Mateo sings with a lagging, conversational patience. He sounds like should be falling behind the band, but he never does. His songs draw on roots mythos as upon relationships, maintaining a kind of hermetic Old World lyrical space, but always with a super-light touch. There is a bit of Biblical heft in his themes – and not just on the traditional he covers, the gospelized “Revelator,” which bounces gracefully between half- and skittish double-time funk, thanks to maestro Eric Parker behind the kit.
Peter Dougan has been playing guitar at Mateo’s side for a number of years. Usually, when a non-writing guitarist is named in a band’s masthead, we expect a pretty plush lane kept open for lead guitar exposition, especially in those genres – like these – that still recognize the solo as a valid use of time. Dougan, however, is player of elegant restraint and extreme song-oriented values – a modern player, in that respect. It is a slow burn, but by the end of this record, re: Dougan, you find yourself saying, “Damn.” When he does step out, there is a hyperarticulate quality to his playing: a delectation of notes and a knack for interesting melodic choices within the idiom that will remind some people of Mark Knopfler, others of Jerry Garcia – though Dougan favors a much more round, syrupy and delay-enhanced tone than either of those masters of the thin and crispy.
The Woodstock A-list rhythm section of Eric Parker and bassist Kyle Esposito really elevates these jams – and at times, they really are jams, as in the blossoming ending of the highlight track “Hey English.” For all of this record’s rangy groove mastery and expansive moments, one of its brightest moments is the closing track, “Jack and the Bean,” a voice and guitar duet between Mateo and his daughter Ava. It reminds us of what has actually been clear all along to anyone paying attention: This is a songwriter’s record every bit as much as a band’s.
The Mateo & Dougan Band celebrate the release of Time to Fly with a show at Catskill Pines in Mount Tremper on Saturday, November 2. There’s no cover, but fill the jar, please.