A few years ago I headed down to the Axe & Fiddle in Cottage Grove to see Mad Anthony, a trio of rockers from Cincinnati who were friends of a friend. One of the best shows I had seen in quite some time and I wrote quite glowingly of their show which was immensely entertaining (all three Anthonys turned out to definitely be mad, let us say). Opening that show was a young singer/songwriter named Matthew Zeltzer who worked his way through a short set for the few in the audience, mostly of original tunes which were promising if nothing else. Just acoustic guitar and voice and a quiet but personal demeanor. When I talked with him I found him quite humble and invested in his music to the point that he was taking time off performing to babysit an organic farm down at Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco (at least, that's where I think it is). Subsistence living and time to write, he said. We exchanged emails and I told him to keep in touch. He did.
I have been following him ever since (well, not him but his career) and he has made steady progress both music-wise and personally. I take a bit of personal pride in that, oddly enough, because I saw something in him and tried to encourage him as much as I could along the way. He has grown from a young man struggling to understand the ways of both music and the music business to a mature and confident musician ready to take his music to the world.
I have heard a few songs while watching his journey and a few of them were quite good, I have to admit, but I hardly expected anything like the songs on his new album under the moniker The American West. I should have known when I saw the video of “Heart of Stone,” a song recorded over a year ago but included on The Soot Will Bring Us Back Again. He had given up the solo act for this one tune, bringing in a new acquaintance to sing harmony--- Maria Maita-Keppeler--- and it obviously worked.
A year and a half has passed and it is still working. Turns out The Soot is packed with new songs quite beyond the reach of any songs I had heard previously. “Heart of Stone” holds up well in the new mix but there are some absolute beauties peppered throughout. I never would have pictured Matthew rocking out as he does on “Voices,” a tour-de-force of shuffle rhythm and building crescendo, or stepping into what I call “musique noir” on the stunning and jazzy “Looking For You,” with its slow and somber pace and laid back walk through a jazz garden. The latter, in fact, has been haunting me, the production spot-on perfect. Then again, “Ritalin” maybe echoes the production, the pedal steel a ghostly presence until the end when the ending, an all-too-short jam and chorus segment that, shall we say, rises to the occasion.
Lyric-wise, “Westward Man” is the topper, though all the songs are very well-written. The chorus, topnotch musically, rides on the strength of lines like “He's a shipwreck/He's a bounced check/He'll cut you down in the muddy street/He's a tin can/He's a fake tan/If you can read his lie you know you're halfway there...” Words to the wise. A warning. Beautifully done.
To say that Maita-Keppeler works well with Zeltzer is understatement. Her voice, mostly light and in the background, is exactly the support needed--- nothing more, nothing less. Or maybe it is a case of less is more. Whatever it is, I like it.
To explain the relationship between Maita-Keppeler and Zeltzer, they each have bands--- hers MAITA, his The American West. The thing is, they are in each others bands in supporting roles. Zeltzer recently produced and played on her new EP, Waterbearer, and she sings backup on The Soot. Both solid efforts which make me hope that this goes on for a long while, at the very least.