Twenty-plus years into his career, producer/vocalist/songwriter/DJ Matthew Dear remains artistically unpredictable in pursuit of his prescient strain of electronically-formed, organically-delivered indie pop. His work traverses myriad musical worlds, belonging to none. But these fluid moves have not been without a few forks in the road, decisive turns, and what-ifs. Most notable is the pivot-point following Dear’s acclaimed 2007 avant-pop LP, Asa Breed, in which he broke away from the 4/4 grid of his techno/house debut Leave Luck To Heaven and into something much more wild and idiosyncratic. Traveling between his adopted Detroit and his home state of Texas throughout 2008 and 2009, Dear amassed a set of personal, playful, looping guitar-centric recordings he’d consider for his next album. Given the new momentum of the hybrid electronic pop of Asa Breed which led to an opening slot for Hot Chip and remixes for ‘00 heroes like Spoon and Postal Service, Dear decided to shelf the material. He moved ahead to work on his watershed 2010 album, Black City, a steely noir set which earned him a Best New Music on Pitchfork and a worldwide tour with a besuited band. This “lost album” had a sound, a spirited country romp in the techno barn, and it had a rough title, a scribble on one of the CD-Rs passed to Ghostly label founder Sam Valenti IV, Preacher's Sigh & Potion. He never fully walked away from it, and merely kept moving down the road, waiting for the audience to catch up. Over a decade later, that time is now.
Preacher's Sigh & Potion finds Dear unknowingly at an intersection in his young run, a burgeoning songwriter at his most freewheeling and unaffected. Dear reflects as he listens back, “I love hearing how free and raw a lot of the production is. As we age, we get trapped in thinking our output or creativity needs to mature as well. Some of that is unavoidable, but listening to these songs reminds me to not think so much. It’s important to be in that world without consequence from time to time.”
In hindsight, there were hints of Preacher’s sound on Asa Breed, but the set still registers endearingly out of step with his eventual direction. This was the first time Dear tapped so directly into his late father’s influence as a fingerpicking guitar player in the 1960s and ‘70s and a gateway to the music of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Emmylou Harris. Dear details: “On one trip down to Austin, I took some of my dad’s equipment and tried to lay out a song using what I knew about techno arrangement but use his guitars and various small instruments to layer a more organic loop-based sound. I’d say that was the beginning of this album. Realizing I could apply what I’d been doing in the computer to the other music I loved and grew up with.”
The twang and tambourine stomp of album opener “Muscle Beach” gets right into it, with Dear’s bluesy baritone narrating a country-folk tale of a young man on the run. “Hikers Y” is unmistakably Matthew Dear; building on a locked-in bassline, he delivers a dryly dismissive mantra as a metronome-like pulse that is equal parts porch music talking blues and minimal techno, unafraid to straddle those two worlds. “Supper Times” cycles hypnotically around a major scale loop that gyres off into minor chords skating underneath like a disorienting dream sequence; Dear’s vocals hover luminously, obscured in the static as airy synth sounds percolate. It’s a bait and switch for “Crash and Burn,” the album’s most fevered stretch, all bent up guitar strums and slacker-pop harmonica chaos. Brushing up against touchstones like Beck’s Odelay era smash and grab-popcentrics, this one doesn’t escape unstung by the cactus of Dear’s whiz-bang production hallmarks.
From the mid-song piano break in “All Her Fits” (a rare Dear chord change) to the gloomy carnival-leaving-town pomp of “Gutters and Beyond,” Preacher's Sigh & Potion is filled with the reckless notions of an artist dashing the history of pop and rock, the twang of country, the build and release of techno. Dear is an auteur, and in retrospect, so many of his signatures crop up in these relics from his former self. Dear remembers him well: “It’s crazy how music memory exists in a very deep and indescribable tangibility. I know the person who made all these, and remember glimpses of the desk, or studio set up for each recording. I know who wrote these lyrics, and where they were mentally during that process.” Revisiting this material now also has Dear thinking about his father’s legacy:
“He also showed me that anyone can play, and perform for people, regardless of having albums or not. He was a very controlled and skilled guitar player but made it look natural and smooth. He had hundreds of songs in his repertoire and would play them nightly for us in the living room. He lived for music, and I hope I can pass that along to his grandkids.”