The Tallest Man on Earth writes modest, deeply inspired folk songs with penetrating melodies and a howl that harks back to Dylan while simultaneously carving out its own distinct gravelly sweetness. This we know by now. He did it in 2008 with his debut, Shallow Grave, and just this year he wowed us again with his frenetic fingerpicked pop-folk balladry on the on-par The Wild Hunt. Standing just over five feet tall, he may not live up to his name physically, but his tales are tall gestures of a folksinger wholly invested in his craft. He plays, writes, and sings with sheer, rustic perfection. But for those who dolefully assumed 2010 would see no more recorded output from Kristian Matsson, well, the holidays hit us early this year.
Last week, Matsson followed the relatively new trend of impulsive, simultaneous album announcement and digital release with his now iTunes-exclusive EP, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird. And, let’s just say, The Tallest Man on Earth has yet to disappoint in his career. At five songs and 17 minutes, Matsson sticks to his Tall formula but not without introducing even more generally astounding melodies, gorgeously delicate (and even slightly harsh) guitar work, and faultlessly crafted folk songs with hooks to kill.
It is very difficult to be particularly noteworthy in all departments as a folksinger, but The Tallest Man really assumes each role with flying colors. Though his skittish fingerpicking often follows similar paths, it is always intriguing to hear the sweet roughness of his voice brush up against the scratchy, ridiculously nimble guitar jaunts. It’s a combination of well-timed and interchangeable strumming, met with fluttery hammers, pulls, and slow-picked melodies. Take opener “Little River”, which sees Matsson’s guitar work take on an almost identical mode as The Wild Hunt‘s “Lion’s Heart”, with a similar vocal melody as well. But the thing is, the melody and guitar work sound so stunningly effortless that he could sing the same song five different ways, and we’d love them all. Faint, ethereal atmospherics appear to be present, but they could just be echoed ghosts of the lo-fi recording. Either way, its a nice touch.
The easy standout of the five is the avian imagery-toting “The Dreamer” from where the EP finds its title. “I’m just a dreamer, but I’m hanging on . . . I’m just a shadow of your thoughts of me/But sun is setting, shadows growing . . . Oh, sometimes the blues’ just a passing bird/why can’t that always be?” Matsson howls with a sting. Atop reverb-soaked electric guitar strums, one of his finest vocal melodies to date cuts right into you, while his thought-provoking, philosophy-laden natural imagery opens the field up for just about as many interpretations as there are words. Why would we want the blues to pass us like a bird? Is he saying that sometimes they pass quickly overhead and are gone just as soon? He’s begging all sorts of questions, but the song’s general tone conveys an overarching sense of somber acceptance of emotional defeat.
“Like the Wheel”, which appeared as a bonus track on The Wild Hunt, is a slow rolling, woeful exercise in self-deprecation. ”I said oh my lord, why am I not strong/Like the wheel that keeps travelers travelin’ on/Like the wheel that will take you home,” he cries. Echoey piano keys sprinkled atop Matsson’s deep fingerpicking make way for yet another ridiculously catchy, lyrically intellectual Tallest Man ballad.
Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird is another spotless testament to Matsson’s genuinely exciting, fresh, and reverent take on folk music. And to mimic Matsson, in a genre with a lot of mediocrity, why can’t that always be?