On Big Inner, one of last year's very best debut LPs, Richmond songwriter and bandleader Matthew E. White sang quietly, his voice rarely pushing past the level of someone who puts their hand on your shoulder and tells you that everything will be fine. That reserve worked as a thinly glazed window to the magic that White and a wide cast of Virginia (and North Carolina) collaborators had constructed piecemeal from the musical closets of Randy Newman and The Staple Singers, Dr. John and Aretha Franklin. With rhythms that twisted and horns that leapt, choirs that exalted and guitars that wept, Big Inner built an ornate cathedral for White's tiny, sweet-hearted musings. He wrote about the wrecking ball sort of love that demanded that the couple "leave the world together." He leavened his own state's complex civil rights history with a simple, string-swept appreciation of warm whiskey in cold weather. And most of all, White suggested that, in a music climate so driven toward the future that the present seems passé, the lessons of the proverbial American Songbook remain in erudite but ambitious hands.
In vastly reduced arrangements, White and his spare band treat these songs live with elegance and restraint, beseeching his voice to get a bit louder and, as it were, spread the good news. —Grayson Currin