Indie alternative folk rock band Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World successfully crowdfunded the release their first full length album on June 23 of this year. Hailing from Asheville, North Carolina, Matt Townsend began writing songs in secret around 2008. His first performances date back to 2010, from street performances and local coffeehouses, to the stages of clubs and venues around the Burlington area, culminating in the release of his first solo studio album, What Light Shall Be in 2012.
He eventually joined forces with Jamie Bright (bass, piano, organ, backing vocals, percussion), Tim Carman (drums), Rachel Keyser (violin, backing vocals), Johnnie Day Durand (musical saw), Jeremy Hammond (acoustic bass, backing vocals), Casey James Saulpaugh (pedal steel guitar), and Peter Bixby (bass guitar) to form this current band. Townsend himself takes care of the main vocals, the acoustic guitar, and the electric guitar.
The album is really about the wonder that is the world, being inspired by “strange dreams and visions, the precarious beauty of human life, and the mysterious forces of the Universe.” Longtime readers of my blog and reviews know that I strongly believe in service to humanity, and won’t be surprised at how excited I was to read that Townsend believes that “creating art is ultimately about serving others. It is taking our individual experience and expression and giving it to the world in hopes that the world may better understand itself, or at least, feel something.” The result are songs about the heartfelt desire for romance, the promptings of the thirsty soul, the pain of loss, and the power of redemption and rebirth.
Overall a soothing, relaxing album to listen to, Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World is undoubtedly inspired by Bob Dylan. But even as each harmonica solo is a reminder of this influence, the band adds enough of its own flavour to make any implications that this album is only a Dylan tribute unfair. I found Townsend’s voice to be quite interesting, in that while he does not have the smooth voice of a crooner or a diva, his singing skills add another dimension to each song. For example, it sometimes felt like Townsend was singing off-key in a purposeful way that added a layer of complexity to a given song.
The album starts off with the track “Seventh Story,” which has a bit of a country feel to it. The skills of the various band members in playing their respective instruments comes through clearly here, and sets a high expectation throughout the album that they arise to meet. I also felt that it was one of the most radio-friendly songs in the set. The second song, “Carry On,” is the catchiest one of the album, what with the simple chorus and the more rhythmic feel of the track. “Hollow City (Free Me to My Soul)” comes off both as grittier than its two predecessors but ends up being even more uplifting.
While the overall sound of the album is mellow, “Wind Without the Rain” tones down the mellowness even more. The dance between the lyrics and the violin is beautiful; the sound of strings brought to mind that of a delicate vine climbing up the tree trunk that is Townsend’s singing. While this song also seems to have a bit of a country flavor, the next one, “Takin’ a Moment,” is drums-driven folk rocker with a country bass line. The following ballad, “Desire Like a Lion,” brings us firmly back into the pure folk genre with yet another popular theme, that of the courage and perseverance of going after the object of one’s desire.
The last three songs seem to decrescendo the listener into the night. The more upbeat “The Garden Where the Grass Forever Grows” features a prominent Dylan influence. “Love I’m Coming Home” is yet another sweet song of universal appeal – who does not yearn to return to a home filled with warmth? And the closing “Gratitude in Being” encourages the listener to give praise for all the wonderful things he or she has in his or her life, even the simple things such as one’s spirit, one’s body, and one’s mind that we can sometimes take for granted.
Even if you do not usually listen to this kind of music, it’s worth giving this album a chance. Matt Townsend and The Wonder of the World is a heartfelt debut, which, although clearly influenced by Dylan, is nuanced enough to break free from a limited category of Dylan-wannabe. The mellow, folky, soothing songs form a distinctly folk album, but there is something different in the quality of the songs that make me think it might have a more universal sound than most. I for one have found it quite useful as the soundtrack to many a deep, one-on-one conversations, the background music to reading and working, and even a great mood setter for spending summer evenings with friends on a patio surrounded with laughter and joy.