❉ Matt Berry’s sixth album reviewed: “It’s best described as the sound of Roy Budd and Ronnie Hazlehurst going on an Absinthe and opiates bender in Soho”
“Essentially, Berry’s music is what might have happened in 1970 if Peter Wyngarde had bumped his head, and staggered, concussed, into a recording studio, convinced that he was Brian Auger.”
Matt Berry’s career’s an odd thing. He’s probably never been more successful, riding something of a wave of popularity in his role as a booming-voiced ham actor in Toast of London. He’s also paid to be weird in a series of very funny online shorts by the BBC, and is often paid to appear in sitcoms as basically himself, but with different hats. He’s an in-demand voice-over man to boot. Perhaps most tellingly, he’s a gifted musician, influenced by everything from Ronnie Hazlehurst to acid folk. You get the feeling that this might be his true bag. When he’s not filming, he’s touring or recording. ‘ The Small Hours’ is Berry’s sixth album, and musically it’s lovingly put together with his band ladleing big dollops of (acid) jazz, prog, and library music chops over his slightly warped singer-songwriter pop.
Essentially, Berry’s music is what might have happened in 1970 if Peter Wyngarde had bumped his head, and staggered, concussed, into a recording studio, convinced that he was Brian Auger.
It’s weird to hear him and not see him. The performance is a lot of it with Berry. His singing voice is also pointedly unlike his famous rumble, making you wonder which one is an affectation. But is it all an affectation, a thesp declaiming over music, like those vanity project albums actors used to make in the 60s and 70s? Where does Matt Berry end and Steven Toast begin? Are either of them his ‘real’ voice, or neither, or both?
Whichever it is, he makes a convincing stab musically. Berry’s music has often crossed over with his TV work, and The Small Hours quite often sounds like the music from Toast’s dream sequences, with The Peach & The Melon sounding very much like an out-take from one of those, with some plain daft lyrics about ice cream and ‘the Manson girls’.
Berry knows his way round a tune, even if his singing voice isn’t his strongest point. There’s a lot of hooks and lovely little musical touches across the 12 tracks here, and several tracks are garnished with dreamy prog codas. There’s nothing as catchy as his ‘greatest hit’, the Toast theme Take My Hand, but Wounded Heart has a touch of Richard Hawley about it. Berry’s lyrics are rambling and often plain odd, like McArthur Park on cough medicine, spinning off into strange, free-associating places. This works best on the desolate sounding title track, that closes out the album. Other songs are filled with quite a few hints that Matt Berry isn’t Matt Berry’s favourite person by a long chalk.
Obsessed and So Obscure in particular is so self-lacerating that you don’t know whether he’s being serious or not. His scattershot lyrical approach doesn’t fare so well on more uptempo stuff like Beam Me Up, which positively screams Toast Musical Number, and suffers a bit from being a record and not being hammed up on stage by Berry and his band, the Maypoles. Possibly the best showcase for his musical personality is the queasy, episodic ten minute instrumental, Night Terrors, where Berry steps away from the mic to act as bandleader. It’s best described as the sound of Roy Budd and Ronnie Hazlehurst going on an Absinthe and opiate bender in Soho. It’s very accomplished, quite unsettling in places, and wouldn’t disgrace any KPM collection.
You don’t come out of ‘The Small Hours’ with much more of an idea who the ‘real’ Matt Berry is. For a ‘serious’ album, it’s got a lot of comic lyrics in it, but it’s worth it for Night Terrors, Wounded Heart, and the title track, which show extra dimensions to a fierce talent that isn’t always sure what exactly it should be doing with itself. A drink to that then, but maybe not a Toast.
❉ ‘The Small Hours’ was released on 16 September 2016 by Acid Jazz Records, and is available in all formats.