The whispery tenor singer/songwriter who holes himself up in a room and records an album is by now a lasting icon of ’00s indie music (thank you, Sam Beam; you too, Justin Vernon), with no sign yet of abating in the new decade. It is very easy to be tired of this type of musician in theory and very hard—believe me, I’ve tried—to overlook one when he’s got it going. And maybe it’s a fine line between having it going and having it gone. Or never arriving.
But Nathan Mathes has it going. One thing I like is the crispness of both the song and the sound (after, that is, the opening 13 seconds of white noise). Guitars are chunky but clear, the subdued bass and drums anchor the mix without dragging everything into a muddy bottom, leaving a light, uncluttered sonic space through which the unpretentious melody ambles. Lyrics are intriguingly difficult to decipher, but it’s not because Mathes mumbles or buries his voice—if you’re not paying attention at first, in fact, you’d think the lyrics were clear as can be. Only when you go back to listen do you realize you can barely make out a word. That kind of elusiveness I can get behind. The song casts a humble spell; there is nothing immediately special about it except for an ineffable sense that there is in fact something special about it. Okay, guys, you can keep your laptops. Just get some fresh air every now and then.
“The Sea is Ridge” got its title from a typo; Mathes had typed “Sea” instead of “Seat,” then changed the lyrics accordingly, because he liked the way it sounded and felt. The song is from the Green Bay singer/songwriter’s debut album, American Whitecaps, which he put online in August as a free download, either via Bandcamp or as a .zip file on his site. (Additionally, all songs are available as direct individual downloads on a different page on his site.) Also of potential interest: Mathes has written a short, soul-searching book about the process of recording the album, which is also available on his site (scroll down a little on the right).