The emotional and social concerns of our times – in talking blues, country rock and folk from Matthew Robb.
Release Date: 10th June 2021
Matthew Robb is making quite a name for himself. A UK-born singer-songwriter, now based in Cologne, Germany, he has attracted plaudits from the likes of UNCUT magazine, who suggested he “…occupies the borderland between the talking blues of Townes Van Zandt and the folk excursions of early Dylan.” That’s not a bad summary of Matthew’s style, ambition and influences, and one to which I’d like to add mentions of Ry Cooder and perhaps Don Williams to encompass the mix of genres evident on War Without Witness.
War Without Witness is Matthew’s third album of original songs and follows his previous efforts Dead Men Have No Dreams (2019) and Spirit in the Form (2017). It’s a strong album, with tracks that pull no punches in confronting the emotional and social concerns of our times. Populist government, big business, the financial institutions, industrial deterioration and the liars in power all take their turns in front of the firing squad, between songs that express the emotion of human relationships using both raw and tender language. The overall impact is warm, alluring, thought-provoking and challenging – in equal measures.
Recorded and produced at Musikkollektive Cologne in Matthew’s adopted hometown, War Without Crimes features an excellent ensemble of musicians. Matthew Robb is joined on the album by Ekki Maas (bass, dobro, electric guitar and slide guitar), Wolfgang Proppe (piano, Hammond organ and harmonium), Tobias Hoffmann (electric guitar) and Marcus Rieck on drums. The band mesh together wonderfully, the arrangements are excellent, and the contribution of each instrument comes over very nicely in the mix.
Opening track I Miss You Babe is a true album highlight. With a tune and arrangement (particularly the contribution of Wolfgang’s Hammond organ) that is reminiscent of Dylan’s Just Like a Woman, the song moves along nicely and the beautiful lyrics will surely resonate with anyone who – as I have – has spent an extended time away from those who matter in their lives. The song’s closing couplet – “I miss you babe, you’re the only thing I crave, Just as long as I’m on this round world, until I’m in my grave” – captures the emotion of the situation wonderfully.
It’s quite a shock, then, to move on to the sardonic blues of the second track, Tell Me Brother; a song that investigates the dynamics of a close relationship from an altogether more fractious angle. Dobro and thumping bass drive the song along and a tasty electric guitar solo provides the highlights.
World Without Witness, the album’s title track, is another corker. The scary lyrics, sung to a tune that recalls All Along The Watchtower swipe out at the still-rising tide of populist politics that is engulfing many western nations, with lines like “Makes you suspicious of your own flesh and blood” and “Stifles freedom of speech, stamps out any dissent.” They’re lyrics that anyone inclined to apathy during these present times should study and heed.
Special Rider is a light country love song, a short interlude between societal messaging, before Numbers hits out at the financial world, its clever, satirical lyrics dressed in a 12-bar rock costume. Sometimes is a chugging rocker with yet another quasi-familiar tune. This time the inspiration seems to be the Velvets’ I’m Waiting For The Man.
Perhaps the album’s most striking track is the evocative, Orwellian poem Ode To Consequentialism. Matthew recites the dystopian lyric in his natural (Yorkshire?) accent – no Americanisms here – the tune recalls Lennon’s Working Class Hero, and the backing strings increase in intensity as the number heads towards its climatic Armageddon. After that, there’s a need to restore the calm, and I Love The Way, another soft, countrified, romantic number manages that admirably, particularly when Wolfgang cuts in with his marvelous piano break.
A Ry Cooder influence is detectable in Don’t Lie To Me, a song drenched in electric slide guitar with lyrics that, this time, target the confrontational behaviour of national governments and the lies told by those governments to justify their antics. It’s a final slice of polemic before closing track Vagabond for love brings us all back to earth with a mellow talking blues and some wonderful finger-picked acoustic guitar.
War Without Witness is a great album. On the whole, it’s the songs of social comment that shine the brightest, but having said that, opening track I Miss You Babe is one of the best things I’ve heard all year!
Not on the War Without Witness album, but get a taste for Matthew Robb’s music by watching the video of his song Red Light Blues from his 2019 Dead Men Have No Dreams album, here: