“An Honest Effort” – Matt Patershuk

4 stars (out of 5)

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Well, unless there’s a surprise rush-release in the next few weeks, this is the last album review of 2021 and we’re heading towards 2022 on a high note. “An Honest Effort” is full of stories of people giving it their best shot, even if their achievements aren’t going to change the world. As a piece of work, “An Honest Effort” is much more than that; it’s a collection of beautifully-crafted songs performed economically to maximum effect with sparse arrangements allowing Matt Patershuk’s rich baritone to deliver stories that show life with gritty realism, intelligent insight and a lively imagination; which is a good place to start.

“1.3 Miles” examines fate and random chance by tracing the course of a bullet fired at a coyote. The shot misses, is avoided by a sparrow that suddenly dives for a worm and comes to rest against a missing wedding ring. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s a metaphysical poem set to music. “Jupiter the Flying Horse” (which isn’t the only song on the album, or in the rest of Matt’s catalogue, about a horse) is an equine love song inspired by a Barnum & Bailey poster. It’s also a metaphor for human social inequality. It’s one of those albums that rewards a bit of deep digging. “The 2nd Law of Thermodymanics” follows on from an earlier song, “Memory and the First Law of Thermodynamics”, from his “Same As I Ever Have Been” album and, along with the two songs mentioned above illustrate an unusual aspect of Matt’s songwriting. He’s very comfortable with introducing scientific, metaphysical and even just plain strange ideas into his songs in the same way that Danny Schmidt does currently, and Shel Silverstein did in the 1970s.

It’s noticeable that Matt doesn’t rush anything on “An Honest Effort”; if a story takes five minutes to tell, then five minutes it is. The songs are taken at a leisurely pace for maximum impact and a couple are in waltz time, which seems to feel less rushed. There’s plenty of space to tell the poignant stories of the person that doesn’t fit in (“Johanna”), the abused wife (“Sunny”) before the tempo shifts up appropriately to driving country rock for “Turn the Radio Up”, about growing older physically but not mentally. I’m writing this on my birthday and I completely empathise. And I’m not saying which birthday. The two family songs “Stay With Me” (about Matt’s father) and “Upright” (about his grandmother) are both powerful in different ways, the first poignant and the second celebratory.

Two more songs on “An Honest Effort” hit the sweet spot for me. “Clever Hans” tells the story of a dishonest effort – it’s based on a performing horse from the early twentieth century and Matt cleverly builds up the detail of the con, telling the tale and creating the back story in the voice of the horse’s handler with lovely subtlety. “Shane MacGowan” is a light-hearted celebration of the Pogues’ singer seemingly abandoning his lifelong pursuit of oblivion and finally having his teeth fixed, even though it interferes with singing his songs.

“An Honest Effort” is a great way to end the year for Music Riot. Matt Patershuk’s a gifted, versatile and highly imaginative songwriter who delivers his songs in a delicately dramatic way, using pauses and interjections to heighten the tension before the release and playing only what actually needs to be played. Eleven beautiful songs delivered in a seemingly effortless style. Enough said.

“An Honest Effort” is out now on Black Hen Music (BHCD0094).

Here’s the video for “Turn the Radio Up”:

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