One mark of a truly well written and conceived song is its ability to hold up and sound right in multiple versions or styles. Todd Mathis – probably best known in the South Carolina music scene for his previous work as the long-time front man for alt-country/rock band American Gun – offers just such a song in “Fall with Me” off his latest full-length solo project Love in the City (released in March of 2017). The song opens the album in a full-on electric version and closes it in a stripped-down acoustic version entitled “Fall with Me (Reprise).” Both are excellent, and I honestly cannot decide which version I think is ultimately the better one. Right now, I’ll argue that the more intimate acoustic version is superior, but check back with me in an hour and I’m just as likely to be saying exactly the opposite. These alternative takes alone would make Love in the City a worthwhile release, but there is much else that makes this album memorable.
Side note: For more of the backstory on “Fall With Me” in Mathis’ own words, check out David Stringer’s February 14, 2017, episode of The Story/The Song – Todd Mathis “Fall with Me” at http://www.scenesc.com/2017/02/14/storythe-song-todd-mathis-fall/.
“There are a lot of themes running through the album and the songs, but the main one is love,” writes Mathis writes in Love in the City’s liner notes. The album is dedicated to Mathis’ wife McColloch “Cully” Salehi (who provides backing vocals on the album as well the lyrics for track six, “Tesseract”), and the songs serve as a loose chronicle of their life experiences together since first meeting in 2011. In execution, this mostly feel-good, we-are-really-in-love sentiment comes through as convincingly earnest and refreshing enough to win over even the more cynical listeners of the world (and I often include myself among that group).
“Fall with Me” effectively sets an appropriate tone for the 11-track, primarily upbeat album, and as noted by Mathis, the first song was written shortly after meeting Salehi. “Morningside Drive,” with is relaxed yet gritty guitar groove, followed very soon after and appears as track four of Love in the City. Perhaps due the strength of “newly in love emotions,” these two songs (including both incarnations of “Fall with Me”) are in my opinion the very strongest among a solid outing overall.
To be sure, no one can really accuse Mathis of having an overly impressive and wide vocal range, and his voice might not be to everyone’s taste (think Drive-By Trucker’s Patterson Hood). This limitation does indeed impact the effectiveness and ultimate enjoyability of a handful of tracks such as “Old Man,” “Tesseract,” “Faults,” and “I’ve Got It Made,” but for the best songs here, the voice feels like a perfect match. I’ve already mentioned “Fall with Me” and “Morningside,” but the infectious jangle in the guitar riff of “It’ll All Work Out” and the breezy, self-deprecating, back-porch aura of “The Lonely Songwriter” (nice piano line, too!) and “Love Song for the Living” are as comfortable as beach chair beers in mid-May South Carolina with friends you’ve known since grade school. The album also includes one fairly blistering rocker in “Better Every Day” – another stand-out song that would admirably fit right in on Drive-By Truckers excellent recent release American Band and definitely harkens back to Mathis’ music over the years with American Gun.
In addition to his previous work with other bands such as Betty Sneetch, Boxing Day, and American Gun, Mathis has issued a myriad of side projects, singles, and one-off recordings throughout his career, with perhaps War Songs from 2010 as a semi-close second, Love in the City feels to me like his most complete, cohesive, and fully formed solo project to date. The production by Mathis and Paul Bodamer and recording/engineering/mixing by Bodamer are balanced and fit well with the album’s laid-back, optimistic, love-soaked vibe.
Among other guest musicians throughout this solo effort, Mathis enlists the aid of several of his former American Gun bandmates: Jeff Crews and Noel Rodgers (guitars), Kevin Kimbrell (bass, and very nice album artwork!), and Bodamer (drums). Their presence adequately explains how several of the songs would not be out of place on any other American Gun effort. But I don’t think it ever is fair to judge and compare solo efforts with earlier work as a group, even if Mathis basically holds true to the rootsy Americana/alt-country sound found throughout American Gun’s oeuvre. The point is to allow the solo work to stand or fail on its own as an artistic statement, and I think in this case that Love in the City can be considered a success.
Just as a postscript – here are two totally petty and crotchety minor criticisms, neither of which have anything to do at all with the music. First, although lyrics are provided with the album’s otherwise attractive packaging (which I always appreciate), the songs aren’t listed in the order that they play. I’m not sure why I find that maddening, but I do. And second, through I’m sure just a printer’s error, the lyrics listed under “Fall With Me” are actually an erroneous repeat of the lyrics for “The Lonely Songwriter,” so the correct lyrics to the album’s best song are nowhere to be found here. Small quibbles for an album I’ve found myself choosing to re-visit regularly since getting my hands on it.