|Press Release - Brent S. Sirota
Climbing by Matt Russell
Matt Russell recorded Climbing in the empty rooms that used to be his home in Chicago. His wife had fled east a few weeks earlier. The movers had come and gone, and with them the furniture and books. Most of his friends had said their goodbyes. All that remained was the skeleton of a studio where his living room once was, the cardboard boxes for seats, the debris of six years, and some CDs he’d kept for his imminent drive back to New York: Albert Ayler, Little Richard, Astral Weeks, Sister, I See A Darkness. Friends and collaborators would drop by at all hours. Matt would ask them for cigarettes. And they would offer up a bass line or the horn parts or some idle conversation. Mostly he just played all night. There wasn’t a bed anyway.
There’s a name for people who linger on in houses where they no longer belong. Usually we call them ghosts. They remain because things remain unsettled. Climbing persists like that in its spare and solitary way. The title track is more than a little spectral: a low moan and lonely old guitar. There’s stale air sighed through that harmonica. And of the old oak tree he conjures in the imagery of the song, he confesses, “I’d have preferred to pass time below.”
Climbing is anxious about transition and is appropriately wrought with tales of broken transportation, of attempted homecomings, of suspended animation. In “Grounded” a man starts to unravel as inclement weather delays his airplane’s takeoff. There’s no small irony in the wistful and haunting “Passerby” when Matt sings, “You’ll feel safe as sidewalks/You’ll feel safe as double yellow lines.” These mark the paths and highways out from that half-empty apartment; but every return entails a risk.
Above all, it is “Daybreak” that recapitulates the bleary urgency of those final weeks in the Midwest: the insistent thrum of the guitar, the faint piano in the periphery, the slight derangement of Cory Biggerstaff’s beautifully bowed solo on the upright bass, and Matt’s own torrential vocals. “I’ll make them mine,” he avers, “praise precious signs of what has died.” Climbing is not an album of anthems; but the ragged “Daybreak” crawls toward affirmation, vitiated albeit by insomnia and great distances.
The majestic “My Way Home” suspends all that doubt on the strings of banjo and mandolin. These and Tom Haldes’ generous piano lend this track a warmth that diverges sharply from the restless introspection of the other tunes. “Am I going home?” he wonders. “I’ll swing low on another day,” he decides. There’s a little peace and joy in that inability to distinguish between the leaving and the remaining.
For all the balance and simplicity of its arrangements, Climbing operates at an emotional register that is rare in modern music. Utterly free of posture and pretension, the album proceeds to relentlessly interrogate the bromides of modern songwriting: about love, about homecoming, about devotion. They all fail a little, like everything else. But what would we replace them with? The skeleton of a studio, the boxes, the debris, the discs. That’s not a home. That’s merely an occasion for honesty.
Brent S. Sirota