Automatic Shoes is the stage name for Matthew Joseph Hughes, an extremely-talented one man acoustic musician. His debut The Road is an excellent work of songwriting and performance. What might be most impressive about the work is the layers of self harmonies that make the songs really come to life. The album feels like an adventure. It feels like the frontier, like loneliness and dust storms, like riding sores and patient endurance. It is a new song for a time of perseverance in the United States.
The opener “Life” has the sound that is the reason I contacted Matthew about his work. There’s something about the simplicity of the acoustic guitar and the layered vocals that got me very interested in his sound. Although the song is just a soft introduction to an album with many more lyrics and more complex melodies, it was what I needed to hear to catch my interest.
“Rain” is an isolating track that embodies some of the key elements of the album. Again the guitar and vocals are nice, but there’s something about the smokey, gnarled sound of the intertwining harmonies that does not have parallels in other popular music acts. Sounding a bit more like Henley’s Eagles than other bands emerging in the new folk scene, the track (and full album) is more alt rock than anything. The lyric “Here comes the rain…” is a bit of a prophetic warning, but also seems to have a promise embedded in it. Trouble is coming but he will stay.
Something about the strum pattern and song structure on “Low” reminds me of Pearl Jam and that era of alt rock music. Feeling a bit more cohesive the following “Victory” shows off Hughes’ guitar playing a bit more. The harmonies are a little more traditional and do a good job of highlighting the melody line. “Trails” also has an older classic rock feel to it. Like several other songs on the album, the lyrics and kind of abstract. Although it’s clear to hear the words, it’s not immediately apparent what they mean. All told, though, these tracks in the middle of the album are engaging.
“In my darkest hour” seems to deal with an existential line of questioning about personal identity and the universe. “I looked through my eyes, looking out at all my friends…” contemplating both the “end” and “everything that came before.” But then it has a hopeful resolve in the midst of the minor chords, “in my darkest hour you were there.” In a reflection that could be religious or humanitarian, the song clearly grapples with the difficulties of life.
“Roots” is one of the more musically complicated songs. While it is on the surface another song with acoustic lead and layered vocals, the melody line and key changes make it interesting. Again it puts me in mind of early 90s alt rock music. The title track “The Road” has that distinctive sound that really defines Automatic Shoes. It’s something truly unique in the guitar and the vocal reverb. It’s the mark of true artistry to craft a particular style. Although it bends genres a bit, it’s the kind of alt rock music that is just relaxing. This particular track is about “the realization that you’re head over heels for the road.” It’s probably lyrically the best track on the album. I hope to hear more like this track from Automatic Shoes as his career unfolds.
“Drag” has a few more bluesy elements to it, which is a genre that suits Hughes’ playing style. The last track “Cool” reminds me a bit of a late 90s band called Everclear. The lyric “it would be cool not to get over you” is a very post-grunge sentiment. The overall sound comes together in this sort of angsty existentialism that desires something genuine but just can’t seem to find it. It’s a quintessential Gen X track coming a bit past its prime.
All told, I think this is an album for fans of alt rock. Although not typically the kind of music we cover around here, the first few tracks I heard “The Road” and “Life” are phenomenal singer-songwriter tracks that deserve commentary. I fundamentally believe that there will be people that will love the sound of Automatic Shoes. If you like 90s alternative rock music, give this album a shot.