Thekla, Bristol

Simon Price on Matthew E White: A happy-clappy guilty pleasure for the yacht-rock crew

4.00

 

The fact that Matthew E White resembles the baby Jesus – that is, if you superimposed the adult Christ's facial hair on a giant baby – has doubtless encouraged the enthusiasm with which he is, in some quarters, being hailed as a new messiah. The 30-year-old Virginian is a bespectacled and benign presence, like Mama Cass with a ZZ Top beard. And his debut album, bearing the dreadful, punning title Big Inner, sounds like the work of a man who bypassed youthful things and headed straight for the music the grown-ups were listening to in 1976 while the kids were getting punked and discoed.

White's mix of gently funky country- pop, Muscle Shoals soul and what is nowadays known as "yacht rock", belongs in a world of Johnnie Walker's Radio 2 shows, mirrored aviators and open-necked denim. It's The Magic Numbers without the women. But that's still pretty good.

It feels tailor-made for Sean Rowley's Guilty Pleasures franchise, right down to the white suit thatWhite wears in photos. The most modern his music gets is the Roses/Charlatans-ish single "Big Love". Yet it's oddly in tune with post-millennial dance music. Songs are never in any hurry to end – there's always a maracas shakedown to heighten the dynamic – and when you catch what he's mumbling, a dry sense of humour emerges. "This is a drinking song, which is perfect for a Sunday night, right?" There's a lovely story about White's failed attempt to stalk his hero Randy Newman at his gated Hollywood mansion. And he and his bassist carry off some pleasing synchronised moves with their instruments, like a junior Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch.

The set, like the album, culminates with a repeated refrain of "Jesus Christ is our Lord/Jesus Christ is our friend", a worryingly happy-clappy moment – like a previously agreeable dinner party guest asking if you've heard the Good News – which seems less preachy the following morning when he explains to Lauren Laverne that the song is written from the point of view of black slaves escaping from the South to the North.

If the world were full of Matthew E Whites, we'd be in trouble. And if White's Spacebomb collective – the mini-Motown stable he's building in his hometown of Richmond – takes off, that may yet come to pass.

Wilton's Music Hall, birthplace of the Champagne Charlie character in Victorian times, scene of Britain's first cancan and almost certainly a haunt of the victims of Jack the Ripper, is being restored without losing any of its decayed glamour. A bit like Marc Almond (*****) himself, in fact, survivor of several near misses with mortality.

If venue and singer are a perfect fit, then so are singer and material. Ten Plagues, written by Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell, is a song cycle set amid the Great Plague of London in 1665, as seen by a periwigged burgher who, as the epidemic grips the city, loses his gay lover and, eventually, his mind. Almond, no stranger to themes of squalor, insanity and disease – he once wrote a song called "(Your Love Is A) Lesion" – has always relished acting out dramas in song, ever since Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye".

A one-man show, accompanied only by Mitchell's piano and some innovative projections, it is musically complex and, one imagines, a challenge for a man who struggled to remember his own lyrics after suffering an almost fatal motorbike accident in 2004. Almond passes the test with panache.

It's moving, thought-provoking and allusive to contemporary contagions (Ravenhill is HIV-positive), and seeing it inside a building erected within the lifespan of plague survivors, on the very streets it affected, adds to its power. It ranks, alongside albums such as Untitled, Tenement Symphony and Heart On Snow, as one of the crowning achievements of Almond's post-Soft Cell career.

Critic's Choice

Yeah Yeah Yeahs promote their comeback album Mosquito at the Apollo, Manchester (Wed), Academy, Leeds (Thu) and All Tomorrow's Parties at Alexandra Palace, London (Sat). Meanwhile, rising Scottish electropop band Chvrches play Village Underground, London (Mon), Rescue Rooms, Nottingham (Tue), and Sound Control, Manchester (Wed).

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