Artist: Matt & Toby
Title: Matt & Toby
Label: Tooth & Nail Records
Release Date: 11/20/12
Reviewer: Carter Fraser
- Life of the Party
- You Will Sing
- Oh No
- What Plays in My Head
- Take Me Oh Lord In Thy Hands
- Good Boys
- Prodigal Sons and Daughters
- Sunday Morning, February 12th
- Come Home
- The Last One
Matt & Toby have been difficult to write about from a critical perspective because after several weeks of having their debut full length I’m still not entirely sure what to think of it. The duo’s full band, Emery, has often been the same way for me; I struggle to form a solid opinion of one of their albums until I’ve had it, gotten into it, put it to rest, and later gone back to it. Unfortunately (for the purposes of this review), Matt & Toby is treating me much the same way. So consider what I say to be just a step beyond a “first impression,” but at the same time any record that takes this long to digest is more than likely worth attention. How good do I think it is right now? About as good as your “average” Emery record, maybe a little above that average. So pretty great.
Matt & Toby do sound a lot like Emery on this release. Quite a bit, really. All of the trademarks of Emery remain: the melodic, dual vocals; the wordy songwriting; the narrative, mostly domestic lyricism; it’s all there. Since these are the traits that make Emery sound different from most “post-hardcore” bands, Matt & Toby sound a lot like Emery. This is essentially an unplugged Emery album (think The Classic Crime’s Seattle Sessions EP, if that helps). There’s nothing wrong with this—honestly, this is the album that a lot of fringe Emery fans have probably been waiting for. Emery are soft enough to appeal to a crowd that might not care for screams and such, and Matt & Toby is for them. It’s certainly not radically different from Emery’s more recent tunes.
What we’ve gotten from Matt & Toby is more or less an acoustic indie rock/pop record, but the tendency is still to put a “post-hardcore” tag on it just as much as one would on an Emery record. The experimentation to be found is partially from the territory they’ve ventured into, but also drawing on ideas more typical of bands like Emery. What’s created then is an album that definitely feels like an acoustic album, not an album that happens to be acoustic. The strumming is often fast paced and rarely gives any sort of a “folk” feel (the closer being the stark exception), and the choruses especially are just as aggressive as Emery’s. There are some electronic tinges to be found scattered throughout, but they are used predominately as accents and aren’t worth significant attention.
Emery fans will hopefully understand what I mean by “wordy songwriting,” but newcomers might be confused. Which is again unfortunate, because I’ve always struggled to describe Emery (and Matt & Toby’s) songwriting in general. “Verbose” perhaps, “thematic”, “distinctive”—I’m at a loss. Perhaps an analogy: their songwriting style might be similar to an old storyteller’s. Imagine two traveling storytellers in some romanticized era of the past, wearing preposterous stockings or something, with children and adults gathered around, surrounded by candles. The first storyteller begins, the second chimes in, soon there is a slight melody to their tale, then full-fledged—Matt & Toby. Except there’s guitars and stuff, and they sing about modern, relevant topics. Even more confused? Drat, I tried.
Terrible analogies aside, Matt & Toby’s lyricism here is frequently among the best we’ve ever heard from them, but then again this is also them at their easiest to understand. The complexity of the stories they attempt to tell almost ensure that the listener will get very little besides one-liners out of a first listen, but there is impressive material here without a doubt. It’s a surprisingly spiritual album, far more so than any Emery album. You get the feeling that this is an album primarily written for Christians, not non-Christians. There are moments in which you feel like Matt & Toby wanted to be challenging, and these moments are often when they are the most successful. There are songs about “church” as much as life “outside of church”, and these are the ones that cut the deepest to the listener.
Matt & Toby stops far short of being “accusatory” and instead elects to be “sobering”—and the album is all the better for it. “Sunday Morning, February 12th” is the prime example, simply telling the story of a man physically going to church. They trace his thoughts as he goes about getting ready for the day. And you know what? It’s real. It’s relatable. When they get to the chorus and “arrive” at church with “and it’s the first time I thank You / and it’s the first time I praise You”, a church-going listener, of which their fanbase is largely made up of, totally gets it. And suddenly, this common experience really is a “first time” again. That’s hard to do, and Matt & Toby deserve heaps of praise for achieving such a level of worshipful authenticity and creativity. There are upbeat songs as well of course, and other oddballs, but it’s the ones where the duo cut straight to the chase that are the most noteworthy.
Overall: As much as I’d like to close by recommending Matt & Toby for its depth, I really can’t. I think there’s depth. For now, I would tell you this is a record worth hearing. But if you ask me in January I might tell you it’s for Emery fans only—or I might recommend it even more strongly. We’ll just have to see.
RIYL: Emery, Vocal Few, David Bazan, Derek Webb, The Classic Crime