Matthew and the Arrogant Sea – Family Family Family Meets the Magic Christian
Record Label: Nova Posta
Release Date: October 28, 2008
We are silhouettes floating across the sea
Matthew Gray and the fifteen other members/collaborators that swim in and out of Matthew and the Arrogant Sea have seen something that no one else has seen. A straggly fleet of ships, each bearing a small, sweet story, drifted over some unknown ocean and into Gray’s head. Each one sailed out from his fingers and into Family Family Family Meets the Magic Christian, an oddball collection of folked-out tales, rambling music, and bewildering concepts. It’s a scattered album, sewn from equal parts Neutral Milk Hotel, The Flaming Lips, and The Beta Band, while making even less sense. Put simply, it’s not an easy album to digest. With a little patience and a lot of Aspirin, all you can do is dive in headfirst.
The first wave, “Within The Universe,” carries with it the menagerie of wispy moods and soft, punctuated instrumentation that typifies the album. Some of the lyrics (maybe from the chorus?) hint at the general eclecticism that sloshes about in Gray’s skull: “You might be a martian or a bumble bee/ You might be a grandfather to the world/ But all my friends are aliens, baby.” Suuuure. The tune floats on a luxuriant current of “ooo’s” and “ahhh’s” and “doo’s” and “dah’s.” This pattern provides a plush cushion on which the music rests, but after a full album of these nonsensical supporting words, the cushion starts to resemble a crutch. With such a robust collection of musicians tucked under its tent, it’s a wonder the band can’t come up with some sort of alternative layering scheme.
That said, each track does seem to bring new instruments on board. From the brilliant backing bells of “Olive Was An Oliver” to the finger-snaps of “Mock Origami” and the analog electronics of “Pretty Purple Top Hat,” there’s no shortage of musical deckhands. It’s when the band is at their most basic, though, that they shine the brightest. “You Still Love Me Blondie” jams with the closest thing to dirty riffs on the album and “The Zoot,” while still relying on a simple backbone of “Oh Jonathan/ Oh Jonathan/ Oh Jonathan,” is radiant and energetic. Aided by a gust of subtle accordion pulses and some nuanced drops of plucked guitar, the two minute beauty of “Mountain Kansas” is easily some of band’s best work. It’s an effortless relaxation that is somehow missed in many of the album’s lesser tracks. And for one of the band’s most impressive tricks, the percussive chords and bombastic chorales of “The Wizard” somehow render the words “He is the wizard!/ He is the wizard!/ He is the wizard!” un-nerdy and actually quite exciting.
If you crane your neck, you might be able to see Matthew and the Arrogant Sea’s vision somewhere on the horizon. But damn, it sure is far away. There’s certainly something to be said for the band’s rollicking dreamscapes, but their over-reliance on comparable song structures sucks some of the sentimentality out of the sound. Repetition leads to boredom. Repetition leads to boredom. Repetition leads to boredom. The stories teased out of Gray’s eccentric lyrics, when decipherable, are strangely engaging. But what should be whimsical quickly becomes tired and the album’s gems lose their sparkle amid the sea of similarities.