I'm almost surprised, living in a city where the now-deceased top alternative rock station would release a yearly "Sonic Sessions" compilation of popular artists in various stages of being unplugged, that I've always taken for granted the difference between an acoustic set and the sound you wind up hearing on a finished CD. When I saw Matthew Ryan perform selections from his new release, From a Late Night Highrise, as part of a set with three other indie singer/songwriters, I assumed that the sound I heard that night would be matched on the CD. I was wrong, and I'm not quite sure that's a good thing.
Highrise, Ryan's fifth full-length solo release, is a collection of articulate, heartbreaking songs that are filtered nicely through his grizzled low-tenor voice. A native of Chester, Pa., Ryan is understandably time-tested, even at the young age of 35 – Highrise is his therapy session after the death of a friend and the loss of a brother to a 30-year prison sentence. The lyrics, and the way Ryan sings them, ring true, and the honesty is touching.
Where the album fails is in the arrangement. For all his singing and songwriting talents, Ryan stumbles by lacing his music with synthesizers were a simple piano, drum, and acoustic guitar would do. Indeed, one of the most beautiful songs on the album, "Providence," is also one of the most bare-bones arrangements in the collection. On the flip side, "Love is the Silencer" is a noisy mess.
Ryan's lyrics tap into a universal sadness that, no matter how personal the album is, makes it accessible to any listener. The slip-ups in production muddle the presentation of the songs, but the message stays clear.