With K Bay, Matthew E. White delivers his first solo album in six years. A joyous, fully realized musical statement, it reveals itself to be fully worth the wait, and quite possibly the RVA album of the summer (yes, even if it did come out in September).
Matthew E. White hasn’t totally disappeared from the world of popular music since his last solo album, Fresh Blood, came out six years ago in 2015. He has, after all, released two collaborative albums: one, Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, with Flo Morrissey in 2017; the other, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection, with Lonnie Holley earlier this year. But for the most part, his activities have moved out of the spotlight. Rather than taking center stage, he’s produced albums for Natalie Prass, arranged orchestrations for Foxygen, and made records with Bedouine and Hiss Golden Messenger, among others, as part of his extensive work with the label/studio/house band he co-founded, the almighty Spacebomb.
So yeah, Matthew E. White hasn’t exactly been lazy in the six years since he last released a solo album. Nonetheless, for the many fans he made with his first two albums, the arrival of third album K Bay is surely the musical event of the summer. For White, it’s also a chance to correct some mistakes he felt that he’d made earlier in his career. Despite it arriving three full years after debut album Big Inner, White felt he’d rushed his follow-up, Fresh Blood, and has spent the last few years away from the spotlight figuring out how to recalibrate and get back in touch with the inner creative voice that guided earlier efforts like his work with legendary Richmond music collective Fight The Big Bull, and his extensive collaborative work with the local luminaries who make up the 21st-century Wrecking Crew that is the Spacebomb House Band.
During the past six years, White made an effort to separate his own work from that of the Spacebomb organization. While it was a rich collaborative environment, it sometimes became an obligation that crowded out his ability to work on things he wanted to do for himself. In order to give himself some space for his own work, White built a home studio in his new house on Kensington Avenue, calling it “K Bay” in simultaneous acknowledgement of the Museum District avenue he lived on and the coastal environments from Virginia Beach to the Philippines where he lived as a youth.
When you listen to the first half of K Bay, the album — which was recorded at K Bay, the studio — you can’t help but hear the tropical vibes White hoped to evoke in his home recording environment; they fairly ooze from the speakers. From the synthetic Caribbean percussion and lyrical uses of hippie-era slang for sex in the dancefloor banger “Let’s Ball” to the funky rhythms and disco/postpunk guitar stabs of “Electric” (featuring a murderer’s row of Richmond music all-stars including Devonne Harris, Cameron Ralston, Alan Parker, and Pinson Chanselle), there’s an undeniable energy to side one of this album that speaks of a happy, self-actualized bandleader rejoicing in the newfound joys of married life and long-sought success in the music world that’s always been his life.
Things get slinky and smooth in a lights-go-down fashion at times too. Moody centerpiece “Fell Like An Ax” drops the tempo and gets into a Barry White vibe, one that will surely lead to some fun intimate times for more than a few grown-and-sexy couples who kick off the weekend by drinking wine on the couch with K Bay as the soundtrack. Let’s just say that if you’re planning to put this one on as background music for an intimate dinner for two, you’re going to want to change the sheets beforehand.
This album isn’t entirely an escape from the real issues White’s native land has grappled with over the past half-dozen years, though; at the halfway point, with “Only In America/When The Curtains Of The Night Are Peeled Back,” White engages in a lengthy exploration of the culpability white Americans should feel for the continuing racist oppression that takes place across the USA. “We set aside all that’s right, and we left behind in the darkest night all the folks we didn’t want next to us, or even near to us, cruisin’ on our avenue,” he sings, over a thick bed of emotionally evocative strings and horns that’s laid down by 33 different musicians from around the Richmond music scene (a group that includes more than a few names you’ll know from projects like Bio Ritmo and No BS! Brass Band). Shouting out over a dozen victims of racist violence, including Emmett Till, Rodney King, Sandra Bland, and Michael Brown, White makes clear that he recognizes the full extent to which the white South, and white America as a whole, owes a debt to the many oppressed communities who have never been given a fair deal in this country.
The latter half of the album gets more personal, as White sings extensively of his marriage, referencing “Judy” (a nickname for his wife, Merry) not just on the track that bears her name but also on tunes like the joyous “Never Had It Better” and the dark electric triumph of “Hedged In Darkness.” White has shown us that he can still party, and that he’s paying attention to the many problems that still exist in the world, but by the end of the album, he can’t help but focus at least for a while on the joy he feels at having found the love of his life. While the earlier, more party-oriented jams were often collaborations with talented songwriters including Natalie Prass, Eddie Prendergast, and Trey Pollard, these late-album paeans to marital happiness are solo efforts, into which White pours his heart and soul. The spare, acoustic ballad “Shine A Light For Me,” on which White declares, “I kept you on your toes and you kept me in line. Now we’re just tryin’ to find a way and maybe get out alive,” is contrasted nicely by the explosive midsong catharsis of album closer “Hedged In Darkness.” Alan Parker’s overdriven guitar solos combine with Daniel Clarke’s Hammond organ and an energetic horn section to provide the loudest, most powerful moment K Bay has to offer, as if to put an emphatic period at the end of the profound, multilayered statement White is making with this album.
Look, you’re from Richmond — you know by now what you’re getting from Matthew E. White. A focus on live instrumentation and group performance over studio perfection; an ongoing delight with the possibilities of classic American musical movements, from soul and gospel to funk, jazz, and Southern rock; that honeyed, baritone voice layered thick as molasses over it all. If it’s not your thing, fine — there’s a lot of other music in the world. But at the end of the day, anyone unwilling to acknowledge the strength of the work White delivers here, the incredibly talented craftsmanship and ineffable artistic spark that went into making it happen, and the fact that the rapturous reception it’s almost guaranteed to get is fully deserved… well, I don’t know what to say to you. Except maybe this: if you don’t get it, keep listening until you do. Because it’s there.
Top Photo by Cameron Lewis