“Time catches up to you…and comes for us all” sings Matty James Cassidy during the chorus of ‘After All’, an instant highlight from his 2020 full length release ‘Old Souls’. It’s a sentiment that really seems to fit, as for the artist formerly known as Matty James, it seems he’s had nothing but time to reach this point in his career. Over a series of independent releases, he’s honed his mix of rock, blues and country to the point where this album genuinely sounds like a work calling out for greater attention. For anyone previously aware of Cassidy’s work, it’s a record that will more than entertain and thanks to a stronger sounding band and a much better production value, he’s turned in some of his best songs to date. ‘Old Souls’ has very clearly been made on a bigger budget, although fans should not worry that “bigger budget” somehow translates into “smoother material”, or be a case of that old chestnut “selling out” (a favourite war cry by record buyers who fear change and aren’t musicians themselves).
On some of these numbers, Matty’s voice is much more gravelly than in his ‘Last One To Die’ days back in 2014, but with the extra gruffness comes an extra confidence and his backing band have also bolstered their musical chops to accommodate a much better vocal throughout. This is immediately clear on the album’s title track, when Cassidy applies his previous rock ‘n’ roll grit to a heavy reggae rhythm which provides the ideal backdrop for a vocal that crosses a boundary from his previous country rock/bar-room sounds into something a little more Nick Cave influenced. Although his voice has a huge presence on this number, a sleazy sax and deep bass do a great deal of the heavy lifting, musically speaking, and everything comes together as if it were written for the soundtrack of a big US TV show. Showing off more of his country rock chops, ‘Anodyne’ swaggers with a semi-acoustic riff, a rattling piano accompaniment and more honking sax. With it’s whiskey soaked mood, lax backing vocals and shamelessly old-school heart, it’s so easy to imagine this being inspired by an old Uncle Tupelo tune. With country influences jostling against the 70s rock grit, it gives the album something that is in keeping with Matty’s previous work, though never seems like a mere retread.
For those hoping for a rockier slant, ‘Said & Done’ is an instant classic driven by a freight train riff and aggressive harmonica lick. Over a timeless roots rock sound, Matty hammers through a vocal performance that more than occasionally has the spirit of a Ricky Warwick solo recording. In and out in just a little over two minutes, this is a perfect showcase for his punchier side; it’s a tune so concerned with whipping up energy, the riff doesn’t even break for a guitar solo or any kind of flashiness. It’s just good, honest bar-room trashiness…and all the better for it, while ‘Born Ancient’ offers an inspired mix of vocal toughness and Celtic folk melody. Although not necessarily a number that’ll be immediately taken to the hearts of rock fans, there’s something within its heartfelt mood that’ll win people over in time. Maybe it’s the use of a melody you’ve always known; maybe it’s Matty’s abilities to channel the strains of Ricky Warwick in his delivery; maybe it’s the confidence that brims throughout – whatever it is, there’s a lot to like here. Between the harmonica riff and warm bass sounds that kick start ‘Rosary’ (released as a digital single ahead of the album), for the briefest of moments, it sounds like Matty is about to launch into a deep cut from The Rolling Stones circa ‘Bridges To Babylon’. However, this goes out of the window once he mismatches a jaunty tune with an old-style country croon and although, on the surface, this more than shows his melting pot of influences in one hit, first listens suggest those talents are far better served on most of the other tracks. First listens aren’t always correct and, in time, the lyrical concerns surrounding a deck of cards, a bet with the devil and the goings-on in the back room of a small town bar conjure such sharp imagery and the simple melody is one that really sticks. By the time you become really familiar with the album, this becomes the track you’re most likely to sing at random.
In another musical sidestep, ‘The Art of Falling Down’ takes a mid tempo rhythm, a blues harmonica and an almost crooned vocal and blends them in a way that seems like vaguely new territory for Cassidy. While his vocal takes a couple of listens to appreciate – it’s quite grandiose, and in a way that isn’t always entirely necessary on something that’s essentially a reworking of a 50s inspired tearjerker – a few near near-timeless melodies and a beautifully constructed guitar solo help elevate the number to something more enjoyable. More than most of ‘Old Souls’, its a number that requires a little more work on behalf of the listener, but it’s worth it, which is more than can be said for ‘Down On My Luck’, a straight up old country tune with waltzing melody and “woe is me” lyrical content. In some ways, it’s interesting that an artist with such varied talents would consider such sub-Hank Williams fare to be important, but a strong hat tip to strong musical origins doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting. Shifting back to solid rock sounds, ‘Leave Your Heart at Home’ offers one of the record’s more aggressive lead guitar sounds, but since that’s used to accentuate rather than dominate it rises above a mere bar room rocker. With a grubby rhythm guitar sound used effectively and a big chorus wielded with abandon, the band offers a great tune that falls somewhere between early Freedy Johnston and the rawer end of Nat Freedberg’s work. The deep sound to the lead vocal ensures it always sounds like Matty James and thanks to a strong hook, this deserves to become a fan favourite.
Most of the ten songs that make up ‘Old Souls’ are good in their own way, but the previously mentioned ‘After All’ is fantastic, showing Cassidy and his band going full pelt on a rockabilly influenced workout where the lyrics reflecting time and closure (ranging from last orders for the barflies, closing the door on the outside world and being “cut down in your prime”) seem to fit the rattling rhythms perfectly. Moving into a crashy chorus, the guitars crank their volume and a great vocal melody recalls a couple of old album cuts from Cowboy Mouth, it’s little short of fantastic – a tune to be enjoyed unreservedly and with the volume cranked. …And as great as that is, ‘Contradiction In Terms’ outshines everything with an equal share of melody and guts. A track capturing Cassidy in full on bar-room trash mode, the riffs borrow from The Stones, shake them up with a bit of Dogs D’Amour inflected sleaziness and tops all of that with a blue-collar mood that would surely suit Nat Freedberg. Taking a simple hook and running with it at full pelt, the singer songwriter allows his booming voice to take charge while the rest of his band play up a storm. The bass runs underscoring everything carry a genuine attitude, while a fiery harmonica lays down several blues licks that really fly. Although it’s the kind of plaid-shirted, heart-worn rocker you’ve heard a hundred times, it sounds none the worse for sticking to a tried and tested formula.
Check out ‘Old Souls’ for ‘After All’, ‘Rosary’ and ‘Contradiction In Terms’, then circle back for the rest. It’s worth investing your time. Although the best tracks on this long player, in the main, find Cassidy doing what he’s always done, between some great imagery, a few killer riffs and a vast increase in confidence, this is certainly his most accomplished work to date.