The title of the upcoming release alone is a head-turner – Strangers I’ve Already Met . It reads as a mystery that ultimately invites one inside for discovery. As singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Bean (who utilizes a rotating cast of characters in the studio and operates under the pseudonym Sneaky Bones) explains, the line is from one of his newest songs, “Strangers,” and stems from his theory of familiarity and simulation. “There’s a constant déjà vu going on,” he says. “Often when I meet someone, I think, ‘I know this person from somewhere’ and I try to track down our common thread. There usually isn’t one; just a vague, intangible connection or reminder of the people I do know. I think there might only be a couple hundred distinct characters in the world, so everyone is just a stranger that you’ve already met.”
Which is a good way of describing the bold and beautiful music on Sneaky Bones’ third album. It greets you with a soothing air of familiarity and bears all the marks in the road that led the Seattle-based musician to its creation, yet it’s resolutely and unimpeachably original – a stranger you’ve already met. On one hand, Bean is retracing and re-framing the roots of folk, country, rock, grunge and soul because he loves the music madly, but on a deeper level, he filters their influence – adding his own magical force along the way – and in the process pushes the music forward.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but Bean makes it sound effortless: an unexpected rush of guitar reverie rises from a moment of hushed intimacy; a delicate, fingerpicked folk melody gives way to cunning blend of doo-wop and soul. It hits the listener like a tactile emotion, but for Bean, it’s the result of resolute craftsmanship. “I wanted to take everything I did on my first two records and go deeper and farther,” he notes. “As I wrote, I wanted to get away from all useless space. If something didn’t contribute to the end goal, it was gone, so that allowed me to concentrate on what was really good – and then I worked to make it better.”
In many ways, that’s always been Bean’s approach to music. Born are raised in the Bay Area, he absorbed the music collection of his parents (“Grateful Dead, Paul Simon and Neil Young”) but didn’t pick up the guitar till he was 16. Almost immediately, he started writing songs – as soon as one was finished, he wrote another. “I was trying to inject growth as I went,” he says. “The more I wrote, the more I came into my own style. What started out as a slime creature became something that was beautiful – and all my own.”
He continued to write while attending the University of California-San Diego, adding pedal steel to his musical arsenal, and after graduating with a double major in political science and visual arts, he headed to the prestigious Berklee College of Music to lay a more formal foundation for his natural talents.
At Berklee, Bean met singer-songwriter Paige Califano, and the two formed the neo-Americana/cosmic folk duo the Dwells. Bean and Califano released two rapturously
received albums – 2012’s Fortieth Floor and 2013’s Don’t Ever Leave Me Like You Do – while embarking on national tours as a duo.
By 2015, Bean was ready to go solo, and he released his debut as Sneaky Bones, Dream of the End, a gorgeous, multi-genre-spanning album that mixed deft storytelling with blissfully sustained musical textures. Two years later, he followed that record with the even more accomplished High as the Stars , which, as its title suggests, beautifully details the human experience in a stunning collection of songs that work their way into a listener’s soul. “I was pushing toward a sound and a feeling that I wanted to expand on with whatever I did next,” he says. “Any record you make is a learning experience. There’s a lot on those albums I love, but my goal was to do something better.”
While on tour in Canada, Bean met two musicians – multi-instrumentalist Sam Weber and drummer Marshall Wildman – who would form the core sound of Strangers I’ve Already Met . Serving as both producers and players, the trio holed up with engineer Joseph Chudyk last summer in a barn located in Byron, New York, that would deliver a sound that was concussively live yet strikingly intimate. “It was the hottest summer I can remember,” he says, “but that barn gave us such a big live sound. The air was so thick, it dripped off every note; you could feel the kick and bass frequencies swim past you and work their way through the hundred-foot barn.”
Strangers I’ve Already Met opens majestically with the first single, “Speed Veins,” starting off as a haunting lullaby that gradually transforms into sweeping, shimmering folk-pop. Bean wrote the words in Byron after hearing the news of the death of musician Richard Swift, a major influence. “I didn’t know Richard,” Bean says, “but I shared a moment with him at a bar in Cottage Grove, Oregon, nervously asking him about how he made some of my favorite Damien Jurado records. I thought back to that moment, and I was in such a sad place. The song is about death – picturing him in the hospital, and then the lights go out.”
Inspired by the Dune book series, “All I Need” is graceful and elegant love song that ripples with Bean’s luxurious vocals over the swampy rhythm section (assisted by Chudyk on percussion) that was no doubt aided by the 105-degree heat in which it was recorded. The combination of Bean’s acoustic and Weber’s syrupy slide guitar on “Strangers” recalls the Southern ambience of the Stones’ “Let It Bleed.” The track went through several iterations before Bean decided to pare the arrangement down to its bare essentials – he now calls it one of his favorites.
Featuring hooks that go on for days, “Carolene” percolates with Bean’s stark, fingerpicked guitar lines before taking off into the land of doo-wop soul. Explaining its title, the singer says that he was free-associating, and he dug the duplicity of creating a new name for a girl, splitting it between the first half (“Cara”) and second, which becomes a verb (“lean”). “Sometimes those brain dumps just have a way of working,” he laughs.
Life on the touring circuit gave birth to one of the album’s standouts – “Sore Eyes” – with Bean reminiscing about staring wearily at an endless open road ahead of him. Interestingly, the track
began as a straight-ahead country-rock tune, but Bean soon discarded the guitar and discovered the wondrous groove he was looking for in his percolating bass and Weber’s echo-drenched Wurlitzer.
“When Does it Hit You” is a shining example of Bean’s penchant for writing happy/sad songs – “It’s about death, but the music and melody is very upbeat,” he observes. After attempting numerous versions with guitar, he again opted for a heavy bass-and- keyboard approach that clicked. Combined with his towering vocals – vulnerable, urgent and yearning – it’s a musical pantry stocked with affecting sounds and emotions.
Gonzo guitar takes front and center on “David Jones,” Bean’s affectionate two-way tribute to David Bowie. What started out as a wildcat country-waltz morphed into an indie-glam bass groover, and the tune took on more dimension when guest musician Jim Horbett, an acoustic bluegrass-jazz specialist, was directed to “just go off” on electric guitar, and he turned in an extended freak-out for the ages. “We just did six or seven takes live, and each one was amazing,” Bean enthuses.
More gems reveal themselves as the album unfolds. Brimming with lush vocal harmonies along with Bean’s impeccable guitar work (dazzling Wes Montgomery-style melodic treatments and dreamy pedal steel), “Trees” is a captivating experience. “Gambler’s Dream,” an open-hearted statement on love and commitment, hits the listener square in the senses. And “Wear Me Down” does anything but – the bracing blend of Bean’s supple vocals, Wildman’s sparky groove and Weber’s tectonic-shifting chordal work bears repeated spins.
The album concludes with “Autobahn,” a glittering slice of Americana that builds to a revival house reverie. While Bean alludes to the fact that the song is partially about a romantic breakup, he also states that grueling travel inspired its lyrics. “The Autobahn is weird because you’re going 220 kilometers per hour, and then suddenly you’re almost stopped when the speed limit drops to 80,” he says. “Life is like that. One minute you’re flying, and then something or somebody cuts you off. You’re like, ‘What do I do now? How did I get here?’ A lot of my songs are about that feeling, when you get right down to it.”
After completing the tracking sessions, Bean sought out the talents of ace mixer Scott Hirsh and mastering master Chris Boerner to bring out all the colors of his sonic tableau, and he sings the praises of both men. “I couldn’t be happier with what they did,” he says. “They each added another layer of life to the tunes and the record as a body of work. I was floored – and it still feels pretty dreamy.”
Strangers I’ve Already Met will undoubtedly leave music fans with a similar reaction. It heralds the arrival of an artist embracing full range of his powers while signaling the expectation that more, and even greater, heights lie ahead.