Sunday 21 August 2011


The first line of the whole of Mathieu Santos' stunning album Massachusetts 2010, in opener 'I Can Hear The Trains Coming', sums up not only how obviously positive he seems to be, but also the general sentiment that invades the album's sound from first to last: "I'm a believer…" It's so simple, so ambiguous, but sung with such perfect carefree gloriously reverbed voice - and since that atmosphere is set, the rest of the achingly sun-worshipping heavily warm and layered song follows. Wow. Then comes the rest of the album.

It's a triumph in a retro Americana sound, mixed with a penchant for afrobeat - found especially in the upbeat 'Massachusetts'; this song starts with a sonic picture of a North American harbour town, with boats clinking and seagulls wheeling about. It's a romantic picture of the northern states that leaves me in a peaceful kind of mood, even after the second half of the song where a long refrain of a very urbane guitar riff, a superbly simple baseline mixed with well timed claps and near-dub horns relentlessly goes on and gets feet moving, heads nodding.

This kind of intelligent indie rock is mixed with a channeling of an older sound, something closer to the Beach Boys, and something we hear quite prominently in '(I Just) Need To Know' - with its kitschy organ melody resting on a bouncy honky-tonk rhythm, it develops into a masterclass in progression, Santos bringing in a sunny guitar towards the end which drips with sand and heat. Similarly, the minimal lo-fi Americana slow-dance march 'I'd Go' permeates the air like worn perfume and after-prom standardisation, told with a end-of-night slow blues bass scale that matches the classic vibe of the song; the soft guitar that creeps in like a hint of love or something is a fantastic touch, too. 'Silly Thoughts' is up there as well, catching your attention with an endless current of claps and a virally catchy vocal melody, all folded in a 6/8 timed song positively bubbling with a jamboree of rhythms, from the reggae swagger of the punctuating synth, to the chorus where the guitar injects an off-kilter mathsy groove to the song.

And it's those delicate touches in a wide sea of minimalism that sets the debut offering from the Ra Ra Riot's bass player aside from instant comparison, Vampire Weekend. Even album closer 'The Bay/Where To Find Her', which distinctly displays more than a smattering of indie-fro stylings, is very different - it's that minimalism, the audacity of repetition, the trust and faith in a single note of a guitar. Mathieu Santos is certainly a believer - in music, that is.

He's only gone and put the whole album on SoundCloud!

So you'll understand when I say that 'Northern Mentality' is like nothing I've heard before. First of all, the stark DIY beat features some of the best hi-hat action I've heard all year, offbeat hits and rolls giving it a cliffhanger of a sound, leaving being driven along with the song. This ain't a toetapper, it's a footstomper, a genuine indie headbanger. The end of the song combines some fantastically mashed-up guitars, and a horns section blare that cradles a near-ridiculous jazz fusion sax solo that squeals in the last part of the song. It almost sounds like a reminder: don't take things too seriously.

And then there's his foray into post-punk - shown in the ballsy punk drums of 'I Said So' combined with its sweeping guitar chords, lo-fi vocals; and at just 1:11 it's the shortest song of the album, totally echoing the quick explosive numbers that defined punk from its outset, but something that now seems a little dated and just left me wanting more, really. You get a bit of this also in 'Wait To Get Up' - whilst starting off sounding like a song by The Police, it ends adopting a post-punk formula, including plenty of palm muted guitar, a few 'Hey!'s in the final quarter, and a distorted mini-guitar solo in the bridge. But that said, the harmonies he lays down here are just mind-blowing. There's something so satisfying, soul-soothing, about hearing multiple voices working at once in perfect fifths or whatever - he's got those harmonies perfected.

Mathieu Santos has basically written one of the best albums I've heard in a while. The songs are consistently good. And when he's not making you dance and filling your ears with golden words, he's giving you beautiful soundscapes. The guitar that makes up 'The Bay' part of 'The Bay/Where To Find Her' gives a good idea of how well he can just compose a song - an adolescent bedroom-dreams symphony. But it's 'Good Return Theme' that really shakes me. It's a decidedly poignant instrumental, acting half-interlude and half-best-song-of-the-album. It sounds like a theme to something, definitely. It builds up throughout the whole song, delayed guitars whirring away as a frenetic snare rimshot beat cackles all around it, followed by reggae-rhythm guitars and a further four-note guitar repetition that eats away at the empty space that Santos has cleverly laid aside for such extensions of his genius. It's a dramatic jaccuzzi-at-night sound, stars, warmth, and endless energetic bubbles. Wonderful.

So if you fancy a touch of minimalism in your life, boundless energy, a modern monument to small-town northern-states America, fresh and simple afrobeat rhythms, heartsqueezing harmonies, gorgeous-basic baselines, well - give this genius new contender a listen.

• Check out the wonderful Mathieu Santos on SoundCloud
• And why not follow the man himself on Twitter?

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