Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Tallest Man on Earth: Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP (2010)

(Dead Oceans) [digital only for now; physical release in a few months]


Don't call it a stopgap. There's no artist who's emerged in the recent past I've touted more than Swedish folk singer The Tallest Man on Earth, birth name Kristian Matsson, discovered last year via my girlfriend Amber. Matsson's first record, Shallow Grave is a gift from ye music gods in a number of respects: the darkly evocative folk songs designed to become burned into the brain permanently; the impressively unorthodox guitar playing; Matsson's haunting throaty yelp; melodies that feel simultaneously familiar and otherworldly. This year's followup, The Wild Hunt, is one of the four records out in 2010 that I think might be a classic -- the songs are subtler, prettier, more shifty, but the album feels like a journey unto itself. Matsson followed it up with a tour spanning several countries, possibly his last in venues so intimate.

To say the least, it's been a busy year for the Tallest Man. But he somehow has still found the time to issue his second EP (the first having predated Shallow Grave), and its most impressive attribute is how little it really feels like either of his long-players.

Musically, the lovely opener "Little River" could have fit well enough on the recent album, but its mood is different; the other four selections are new entirely. The songs are more brooding and longing, for starters ("If just tonight that I could be where you are near / And just forget where I am lost"; "We live so close that we've probably seen the same bird, the same time / They solumnly scream, one day, I'll find just that friend who can see / All this weird beauty thrown right at me"), and more significantly, Matsson has never sounded more soulful. Increasing his palette of influences to hyperemotional sleevehearted R&B (already suggested by the Sade cover we saw him play live in April), much as Joanna Newsom did in her "Baby Birch" a few months back, reveals his most impassioned vocals to date. This is most evident on "The Dreamer" and "Like the Wheel," which offer the powerful climax The Wild Hunt deliberately sidestepped. Following those two, Matsson spends "Tangled in This Trampled Wheat" and "Thrown Right at Me" chiming away into darkness -- achingly distant and delicate, unfalteringly pretty.

As every review of and conversation about the record as noted, "The Dreamer" -- one of the finest songs by anyone this year -- also offers Matsson's first use of electric guitar on a TMOE album. If anything, this fits with tradition: Shallow Grave featured a single track with banjo, The Wild Hunt closed out with a pleading piano ballad. Still, the intensity of feeling Kristian Matsson still gets in the changed venue of amplification is a tantalizing suggestion that there's no limit to what might be coming next from this exceptionally gifted performer.

For the Tallest Man on Earth's expanding cult, this EP is unmissable, offering five (half a TMOE album's worth) more songs to commit to memory, explore, sing along with. It's not unreasonable to assume that by the time album number three rolls around, that cult may have become a legion.

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