Released in 2006, and somehow completely overlooked, Britain’s Scott Matthews’ debut album Passing Stranger is a strong start to a promising career. His music is a blend of folk, blues, and occasionally rock music that often draws comparisons to Jeff Buckley; comparisons that are fair, for the most part. While his voice is much closer to that of Chris Cornell, his music features strong melodies and some lush arrangements similar to those of Buckley. Where they mainly differ is that Buckley was a rock musician with folk influences, while Matthews is a folk musician with rock influences. So, while Matthews has a strong voice, he rarely flaunts it, keeping most of his songs from becoming boisterous and exuberant, and more similar to the music of Nick Drake.
The album starts very strongly; its best track, “Dream Song,” is the opener, following a brief introduction. It is the most upbeat song on the album, with a variety of strings creating a very pleasant mood; it might be nice to fall asleep to, but I wouldn’t want to miss any of it. It is followed by another highlight, “The Fool’s Fooling Himself,” the other up-tempo, full-length track. Tempo is about all it share’s in common with “Dream Song” though, as this track favors an ominous mood to an airy one, making the song sound like something that could be found on any album Chris Cornell has released in the past decade. Other stand-out songs are “Sweet-Scented Figure,” which goes back and forth between twangy, bluesy verses and a tranquil, relaxing chorus, “Passing Stranger”, where Matthews does his best John Mayer impression, and “Elusive,” which seems to borrow some melody from Jeff Buckley’s “Morning Theft” (irony!).
With seventeen tracks, it seems like there should be plenty of music to entertain the listener, but that number is deceiving. Seven of those are much less than two minutes long, functioning as bridges between songs, and while they are okay for a while, they actually get worse as the album goes on, making them nuisances more than anything. Some albums that feature several interludes, like Tool’s Aenima, make them acceptable by surrounding them with great songs, so that they operate almost as time to allow the listener to get ready for more. In Matthews’ case, this would have worked better without them, especially final two, which are the last tracks on the album, and make for a wholly unfulfilling close.
Too much of the music is forgettable or unnecessary to make this album excellent, but as a singular listen it a nice experience if you are in the mood for relaxing music, and more than half of the real songs are at least above average. Hopefully on his next release Matthews will cut the fat some more, and focus on making several, unique songs, because he clearly has the potential to make something remarkable.