Album Review

The Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy – [distant chatter]: Album Review

Iain Matthews and BJ Baartmans reflect upon life under lockdown – and offer a few answers!

Release Date:  17th September 2021

Label: Talking Elephant Records

Formats: CD / Digital

Like the majority of us, Iain Matthews was disorientated and frustrated when the world was forced into lockdown and, again like many of us, he took the trouble to seek out ways to ensure that the days he spent away from his “normal” life – a life which, for Iain Matthews, involves live performance, studio work and face-to-face collaboration – weren’t wasted.  Now: in my own case, I developed a lockdown routine of walking each morning, before spending the afternoon writing, or immersing myself in some other creatively rewarding activity – and that’s exactly how Iain overcame the lockdown challenge and, as [distant chatter] demonstrates, it’s a challenge he came through with flying colours!

Iain takes up the story:  “I started walking after a simple heart procedure last spring and that’s how I began to write these lyrics.  The thoughts and ideas came to me at home from my lockdown experiences and once I had a concept, every time I’d walk, I could write in my head.

“Talking the lyrics through to myself, over and over so I could remember them until I got home, where I’d quickly write them down before they’d disappear into the ether.  Sometimes a complete lyric would take me as long as a week.  A verse one day, a chorus the next – and so on.

“…Fourteen months later I had over thirty sets of words, more than I’d ever written at any given time.  All in song form.  Some with melodies but mostly just words.

“…[I asked] BJ [Baartmans] to put some of my new lyrics to music [and] he did such a great job, that the more we worked on them, the more apparent it became that they were destined to be recorded.  Ultimately as a duo album, [distant chatter].  We call ourselves “The Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy.”  It has a nice ring to it.”

Iain Matthews, of course, requires little introduction.  Described variously in these At The Barrier pages as Folk-rock royalty and …the finest British exponent of the Americana genre, he’s a great favourite of ours.  He last came to our attention earlier this year, when we reviewed his excellent solo album, Fake Tan, which itself came hot on the heels of the fourth album from the reconvened Matthews Southern Comfort, 2020’s The New Mine.

BJ Baartmans has been a close associate of Iain’s since Iain relocated to The Netherlands in 2003.  He’s a key member of the “new” Matthews Southern Comfort and is Iain’s writing partner of choice.  He’s toured extensively in Europe and in the USA, both with Iain and with other collaborators such as Israel Nash Gripka, Eric DeVries, Shannon Lyon and David Corley and he’s released at least 15 albums either under his own name or under the band names BJ’s Pawnshop or BJ’s Wild Verband.

[distant chatter] is, in many ways, the ultimate duo album.  Iain and BJ play all the instruments and provide all the vocals.  Well… Iain does the lead and harmony vocals and plays acoustic guitar, whilst BJ chips in with just about everything else, including drums, percussion, bass, a whole range of guitars, keyboards, mandolin, bouzouki and banjo.  But don’t go expecting a sparse, paired back sound… right the way through this excellent album the instrumentation is full, satisfying, and perfectly balanced to place the spotlight on Iain’s rich and impassioned vocals.

As would be expected, bearing in mind the genesis of these songs, the bulk of the album’s lyrics concern life under lockdown and the human behaviours that have been accentuated by our estrangement from each other and, in a way, it’s a shame that the album didn’t appear earlier as there’s no doubt that the thoughts and emotions that Iain’s so eloquently expressed resonate with many of us and would have helped many a listener to recognize that he/she wasn’t alone.  As BJ says in his sleevenotes, “I believe we recorded an album that had no other option than to be made.”

Lockdown frustrations are confronted right from the outset in the jazzy Sleepwalking, a song that, with its soft electric guitar and subtle percussion places a comforting shroud around the whole lockdown business.  Ominous and tense, with a sinister, loping bassline, the Corner of Sad and Lonely tells a story of the physical and mental effects that loneliness and isolation brought to so many before we take a slight diversion away from the subject of lockdown for Are You a Racist, one of the album’s standout tracks. 

Are You A Racist is a song that needed to be written.  The lyrics pick up on so many of the lines that are trotted out to try and hide the real fact that, behind the excuses and bluster, there’s a fear the unfamiliar and that, the blustering excuser is, indeed, racist.  With lines like “Who we love and who we hate is ours to differentiate – What makes you think YOU’RE the chosen one?” “Are you rotten to the core, or just acutely insecure?” and “Do you hate all that you fear?” cut to the quick, and anyone who listens to this song really should ask themselves the questions it raises.  And those questions are all asked in such a melodic and understated way!

In Fourteen Months, Iain provides a condensed view of what it was like to have been a professional musician during those long months of lockdown.  The lyrics mention cancelling tours, selling guitars and even pawning the phone until, ultimately, lockdown is described as “Hell on Earth.”  But although written from a musician’s point of view, the lyrics express sentiments that will be familiar to us all.  Fourteen months is something of a BJ Baartmans instrumental piece de resistance as he contributes some beautiful parts on mandolin, resonator guitar, banjo and a fine electric guitar solo.

The poppy I’ve Gone Missing could perhaps have been written at any point of Iain’s long and distinguished career, but it takes on extra meaning when the song’s lyrics, that describe mental withdrawal, are considered in the light of the pandemic.  It’s a song with a catchy tune and another wonderful acoustic guitar solo from BJ.  Iain describes how his daily routine of walking and writing helped him to use his lockdown time productively and rewardingly in Writing Off The Blues, perhaps the album’s most positive riposte to the lockdown constraints – and it’s all delivered to a nice accompaniment of fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a rich, resonant bassline.

To a smouldering electric guitar riff, All That Glitters questions the need for the growth of venom, hate spite and malice that has occurred over the past couple of years (particularly via social media…?) before the mood becomes even more despondent in the broody Here’s Looking at You.  The song’s lyrics seem to offer no hope of a return to normality, but it’s a great tune, nevertheless!

After a Flamenco guitar intro, the despondent mood continues in Low in the Water, a song that directs its resentment at a figure who causes chaos and disruption from a position of supposed invisibility and safety.  I can think of plenty of people at whom such a lyric could be justifiably aimed – I wonder which of them Iain had in mind?

[distant chatter] is brought to a conclusion with Is This It?  An enjoyable acoustic guitar song with lyrics that recognize the crossroads at which the world is currently poised.  The lyrics note that we can “cross the rubicon” and carry on, or we can just give up, but they don’t offer any advice or opinion of which of these is likely and how we can influence our future direction.  Perhaps Iain has kept his thoughts for another day – hopefully he has! [distant chatter] is an excellent album.  It condenses the thoughts, experiences and emotional turmoil that we’ve all suffered over the past 20 months into ten highly listenable and highly tuneful songs.  Iain’s voice is as good as ever and BJ’s tunes and instrumentation are a delight to behold.  This is an album to cherish and, who knows, if (heaven forbid) we’re plunged into yet another period of lockdown isolation, it may yet help us to get through more dark days to come.

Watch the Official video to Are You A Racist – one of the album’s outstanding tracks – here:

Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy: Website / YouTube

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