Here’s my initial warning – if you don’t like country or bluegrass and you hate that steel guitar sound, then this album is not for you. It is packed full of whiny twang that many of us just love – so if you are still reading, then you are in for a treat! With that said, this is not an over-produced Trace Atkins or Alan Jackson album, but rather a more rustic and raw tribute to that Americana sound.
The album opens with “Break Easy”, and Matt immediately sets the tone by launching into a rather broken, cracked-with anguish vocal style – the way he sings is gentle, yet rugged at the same time. The music follows a simple chord structure, and somehow even though the tempo and instruments are completely different it reminded me of that old song “Operator” by Jim Croce (must be that overall pleasant vibe of the song that creates an instant nostalgia).
I can imagine “Break Easy” being covered by someone like Darius Rucker to popular effect on hit country radio; it is the type of song that almost everybody likes. I don’t usually appreciate slower songs, but somehow on a rainy summer Saturday night, this felt just about right – it would be fitting for an evening with friends, a date, or just hanging out on your own.
Track #2 is “The Singer”, with a rolling guitar entry that evokes something by the Counting Crows (from back in the “August” days when they were really good). Lyrics like “put a penny in the jar / open up your heart” portray a singer as a storyteller, in a narrative song about some kind of life-changing traveling troubadour encounter. The whole story is set over perfectly countrified guitar that feels just so healthy and homey here.
And Matt is back to sweet and slow again on #3! I would say that “Recognize” has that waltzy “last song of the night” type of feel, followed by “The Worst Goodbye”. This one isn’t bad, but I’ll admit it gets a little repetitive. I went back to the first track to see if I had different words to describe this song – I would say this one is more stripped down without the organ background and perfectly constructed backing rhythm of the opener. Here you have mostly just Dobro and vox – which is fine but not really remarkable, with expected country-song lyrics like “I can take the pain, but I won’t take the blame / it’s your love that’s killin’ me.”
But don’t stop listening yet, because then we get Track #5 – “Ain’t Ready To Stop”. This is the kind of song I was waiting for! There’s a driving train-track beat and some real twang and wail on the guitars, with laid-back lyrics like “cruisin’ though that desert kiss / sure don’t get better than this / I ain’t ready to stop for days”. If you like the idea of a mix between Ryan Bingham and Old Crow Medicine Show, then you will enjoy this one. Matt’s skill on the guitar really shines through and there is a lot of that pedal steel sound here too which is just awesome.
Next is “Going to Hell”, which sounds like a hyper-romantic and emotional slow-dance of a song. Don’t play this on a date though, as the chorus “everything just keeps goin’ to hell” is a bit of a downer. And I loved the title of the next track “Stronger Than The Song”; but this one was really slow and sobering as Matt sings “there’s lines on his face, the scars of loves lost and prices paid”.
Both of these songs are really fitting for an album called “Broken Hymns”, as you would expect the songs to be slow and simple with a trend towards the damaged, more depressing characters. A pleasant female vocalist takes over here on Track #7 (as a more mellow version of Carrie Underwood) – adding some energy to the third slow song in a row as both singers harmonize pleasantly together.
Finally we have “Broken Hymns”. This is a gritty relationship song, utilizing those lovely vocal harmonies again, on this – the title track and the album closer. The instrumentation is full, and the tempo is upbeat enough to be catchy and memorable while still slow and sad. The music has to be sad enough to support lyrics like – “I didn’t even say goodbye, just found a place to lay down and die / there’s nothin’ worth hearing in my final words.” Yikes!
I think “Broken Hymns” is really a strong ending to the album – if this had been the opening track I would have certainly kept on listening. The artist’s style is consistent, the musicianship is good, and his songs are solid. Again, if you aren’t afraid of country music or slow tunes – you’ll like most of the tracks on this release. Check out www.mattbradfordmusic.com for samples of the music right on the website!