Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Matt's Mood," by Matt Bianco

“Matt Bianco” was a trio, formed in 1983 with Danny White, Mark Reilly, and prominent vocals from Polish chanteuse Basia Trzetrzelewska. The name of the group is fabricated; a fictional secret agent, which came from the group’s love of TV and film spy themes. Their music is European pop, strongly influenced by samba and jazz. The band’s debut, Whose Side Are You On? scored a significant hit throughout Europe, but it’s quirky synthesizers and splintered English prevented it from making a dent in the U.S. market, to wit: “The waiter crept away with…the micro dot.” Um...huh?

Fun fact: pulling an unprecedented hat trick for a brand new band, Matt Bianco’s debut featured saxophone work from the legendary Ronnie Ross (listen to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” on which he played tenor saxophone, and you’ll understand the moniker).

The original Matt Bianco lineup parted ways in 1984, with Trzetrzelewska and White joining forces to begin work on their own music, of which Basia has said, “we didn’t even expect to get a record deal let alone a hit.” True to her suspicion, the pair’s first release (as “Basia”) was almost not released in the U.S.; their record company believed it “too European.” Unexpectedly, however, several American radio stations added the mid-tempo single, “Time and Tide,” to top-40 playlists, and the song and album became a rare jazz-pop crossover hit. In fact, Basia enjoyed significant success in America in the late 80’s, where both of the duo’s albums, Time and Tide and London, Warsaw, New York reached platinum sales.

Breakneck touring followed, which quickly took a toll on the duo, causing Basia and Danny to take a few years to regroup. The pair released their third album, The Sweetest Illusion, in 1994. But by that time, Nirvana and Seattle grunge ruled the airwaves, leaving little room for the duo’s jazzy pop stylings. The album failed to find an audience, unfairly disappearing within weeks of release. Around that same time, Basia suffered the end of a long personal relationship and the death of her mother, which kept her out of the limelight for the next decade. Of that period, the usually cheerful songstress has said, “I just didn’t feel like singing anymore.”

But in 2003, White and Reilly started writing together again and eventually coaxed Basia back into the studio for what became a comeback of the original Matt Bianco. The result was 2004’s dazzling, Matt’s Mood, which brought back the band’s familiar Latin, jazz, and samba influences, but with even more spark than before: not only a triumphant return to form, but vastly improved with time and experience. The album’s opening song, “Ordinary Day,” bows gratefully to any number of João Gilberto compositions, sporting a snappy, samba melody with a familiar sunny lyric from Basia expounding upon the virtues of mundane, day-to-day life when with the one you love.

Basia trades lead vocals throughout the album with Mark Reilly no more effectively, perhaps, then on “Say The Words.” Strongly referencing French folk music, the maudlin song describes the moment when two people realize their relationship is over, but neither has anywhere to go from there. The song “Ronnie’s Samba” is a tribute to their mentor, the aforementioned Ronnie Ross. White found clips of Ross’ playing from their early 80’s sessions and flawlessly incorporated them into three songs on the album, and Ross’ saxophone-from-beyond on “Ronnie’s Samba” truly enriches this exuberant tribute.

Reilly handles lead vocals on “Wrong Side of the Street,” and Basia contributes smooth and sensual “da-ba-da’s” as the chorus, moving into a sultry Polish end verse, which loosely translates: “Don’t be scared, try once more. You stumble; you’re unlucky again. Maybe you don’t stand a chance. Who knows, but remember that I am here for bad and good. You’re not alone.” Um…ok, but who cares what it means? It sounds real pretty when sung in Basia’s native language. Relevant side note: Basia is sometimes trounced for what some critics believe to be a penchant for trite and overly innocent, verging-on-naïve lyrics. One reviewer suspected that she composes in Polish and translates to English, resulting in the demure, “Oh my!” flavor sometimes found in her work. While I concede the point, it still doesn’t stop me from loving this extraordinary album.

Vying for best song on Matt’s Mood is “La Luna,” which juxtaposes cheerful Latin-flavored samba with what is arguably Basia’s most lugubrious lyric. “Move on. I try to, but I’m lost without you.” Basia sings of her mother’s passing. “All around the Universe, you’re looking down; I know you’re watching over me…is it a mild case of madness?” she asks, referencing centuries-old folklore and theory about the terrestrial effects of the moon (i.e. “the lunar effect,” which postulates a correlation between the Earth’s lunar cycle and mental illness, or “madness”). But to me, “La Luna” is heartbreaking - a song written by a grown daughter who just misses her Mom.

Will Matt’s Mood ever be included in any “Top 100 album” lists? Probably not. So why am I recommending this album? First and foremost, it’s an album that overflows joy, even in its quietest moments. There’s a lot to love about that. Secondly, I’ve never heard an album that accommodates almost any occasion like Matt’s Mood: pick an activity, and this album will supply the perfect background. In fact, I’ve used this album as the soundtrack for a summer lawn party, as background music for a reception, when making dinner with my wife, and as a driving companion on long road trips. I’ve never skipped a track, and you won’t either.

Post Script: This post comes out a few short weeks before Basia’s 2009 return with It's That Girl Again. Who knows, maybe a future entry…

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