KICKED BACK: But ready to roll.
Matt Newberg has a knack for naming bands, songs, and albums. It’s not to be underestimated. How many bands have never gone anywhere simply because their names were bad? How much farther along would the Killing Moon (Animal Suit Drive-by) be, or Loud Neighbor (Shufflin’ Tremble) have gone, had their first names not felt like burdens?
I knew Newberg’s Burlington, Vermont, band Turning Point back in college, and definitely went to see them if only because of their listing in that town's local alt-weekly, Seven Days. The name sounded like what they were, a danceable funky kind of band good for drinking beer to. He came to Portland and was Barlo Igns for a little while, which was worth an audible chuckle and delivered as a catchy folk-rock band. Then came Maybe Utah, which I’m pretty sure I took more seriously just because the name was so much better.
And then there was Matt Newberg and the Hurricane. Tell me that doesn’t sound much more bad-ass. It (and his earnest songwriting) got him a showcase in Nashville and a little record deal that produced the fine Buffalo, a Neil Young-inspired disc that also got bonus points for great packaging in 2004.
So why’s he back to being Matt Newberg and Maybe Utah for Back from theTrail of Tears? Well, for all sorts of never-quite-made-it and probably-got-screwed reasons that don’t really matter. This time out, instead of using a Nashville studio, he’s recorded himself, handling engineering, mixing, and mastering duties along with playing everything but bass (Darren Finnegan) and drums (Jeff Glidden), including any number of guitar tracks and harmonica and accordion at appropriate moments. I can only tell the difference sometimes in the headphones, and an outside producer might have counseled against a few decisions like the spoken vocal track in the left channel that takes some luster off a quite good chorus in the politically themed barnstormer “Raise Your Banner.”
There’s something I like, though, about the maniacally ironic faux-producer who screams, “come on, time’s money,” as part of a static and distortion-filled open to “Black Hand.” It’s a grit that helps Newberg, who can sometimes come off a bit corny in his well-meaningness. Plus, the guitar tones he gets are better than most of what I heard on Buffalo. His low-end is warm and expansive in his relaxed and subtle mid-song guitar break on “Hand” and throughout “Break Out,” which is probably the album’s best song, with a full one-minute intro that’s bridged to the song proper with a guitar thrum like a down comforter.
Newberg sometimes clunks a lyric, like the chorus to “Scout” that couples “cuz when the stars tumble down from the sky/You won’t even have to try,” but never blows the sentiment (and I’m hoping that title is a To Kill a Mockingbird reference). He comes off as a super-nice guy who’s with each album developing more of a bitter streak you can like. He’s come to know “there’s a little loser in all of us/Who likes the feel of pain,” and likes to show his sympathy for the pain of others.