Note: Matt Munhall is playing a concert Thursday December 22 at the
King Arts Complex Theatre,
Columbus OH. Tickets are a mere $15, and a good time is guaranteed for all.
Henry the Horse, however, will not be dancing the waltz.
This is where I shamelessly abuse my position as editor, go all Jason
Thompson-first-person on you and tell you about a guy I know named Matt Munhall.
He’s young, a mere 23, but he’s an old soul. I met him a couple years ago
between sets at Smith & Wollensky, where he appeased the drunken, chain smoking
masses by banging out typical piano man fare from the Beatles to Elton John and
Billy Joel, sneaking a Ben Folds song in here or there when he could. The voice
was a little off, but it was louder than God in that bar; I’m guessing he
probably couldn’t hear himself. He told me later that he was finishing up a
record. I wished him the best of luck, but without hearing any originals in his
set, kept my expectations low.
Boy, did he show me. Released in 2003, Over and Over Again was
startlingly complex, the kind of stuff that Randy Newman – not coincidentally,
one of Munhall’s idols – would be proud to call his own. Dylan didn’t have
anything to worry about in terms of lyrical prowess, but the song “Breathe”
could have been recorded in the same sessions as “Someone Saved My Life
Tonight,” provided that Brian Wilson happened to pop in and add a few lines in
the break. The album even had a piano solo that would give George Winston pause.
Pretty heavy stuff for such a young Turk.
Well, it’s two years later, and in the time since his last album, Matt has
toured all over Europe, watched a girl cut his heart cut out of his chest with a
dull spoon, and discovered the aforementioned Dylan, which led to Munhall
stepping up his lyrical game and experimenting with, horrors, a guitar. The end
result of those three seismic events, Guinea Pigs on a Scaffold, will
surprise anyone expecting more piano jazz. There is a strong alt-country
influence on this record, with six of the 16 tracks boasting pedal steel,
violin, or both. “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics,” in fact, is straight-up
bluegrass, which is the perfect style for this, um, damning song about how
“all the kids are on the drugs approved by the FDA / Drugs that steal a thousand
thoughts from the kids each day.” Such are the thoughts of a man who’s just
come back from, ahem, Amsterdam.
Matt’s best shot at the brass ring is with the leadoff track “Obvious.”
Propelled by a bouncy piano line and some more of those Brian Wilson vocals,
“Obvious” is the kind of thing Ben Folds would write if he weren’t so busy being
a miserable old codger. The wounds from the breakup are on display here, where
he tells his lady friend “you were just another high school girl, afraid to
screw up / just too scared of the world, too scared to screw up.” He kicks
himself later for getting into this mess: “Could I be any more obvious? Baby,
I’ll be alright / Don’t think I’ll stay tonight.”
If there is anything holding Guinea Pigs back, it’s the length. There are
16 tracks here, and it feels every bit like a 16-track album, meaning that three
or four should have been held over for the next record. However, since there may
not be a next record (Munhall paid for this album himself, so it’s not
like he’s spending Geffen’s money getting high for three years like the Stone
Roses once did), it’s understandable why he laid it all out on the table here.
And that is why I’m pimping his show in Columbus next week so heavily. Dude
needs butts in the seats in a big, big way, and the show, featuring some
supremely talented local legends as his backing band, should be a real treat.
Matt’s going for it in ways that most musicians wouldn’t even dare to dream
about, and you have to admire his decision to throw a big, fancy grown-up party
instead of playing one or two of his songs in between a bunch of Bright Eyes
covers at a coffee shop. In fact, he just recorded an appearance on Scott “The
Piano Guy” Houston’s PBS show, where he plays an original (“Peach Moon,” from
Over and Over Again), a Randy Newman cover, natch, and some traditionals.
This is why, if you live in the Columbus area, you should check out this show,
so you can say that you saw him before he was a star. Bragging rights rule, you
know it’s true.