As we rapidly approach the first anniversary of Matt Mays’ 2017 release, “Once Upon a Hell of a Time,” I have a sense of regret in not reviewing the album when picking up a copy at one of his Ontario shows last Fall. This was, after all, a well-timed return to the spotlight for Mays, and this highly anticipated release certainly satisfied my cravings for his music. With popular cuts such as “Faint Of Heart,” “NYC Girls” and “Sentimental Sins” receiving heavy rotation across Canadian radio stations (and Sirius XM too here in the US), it was almost impossible to ignore that Matt was not only back, but as good as ever.
Almost one year later, and Matt is ready to release this album once again. Yes, you read that correctly; Matt Mays is launching this album once again on October 19th. But before you go scratching your head and questioning if Mays has a momentary lapse of amnesia, pay extra attention to the title; “Twice Upon A Hell of a Time.” Notice the subtle change? Yes, this may repeat those same thirteen songs, but as an acoustic offering, “Twice…” sees everything reimagined in a completely different context. And instantly apparent upon the first listen is just how different these songs appear to be. “Once Upon a Hell of a Time … is a Saturday night record,” says Matt. “This version is for the hangover on Sunday.”
The original version saw Matt return with a tour de force of an album, once again re-affirming his identity as the classic rock and roll pioneer. Creating a sound that oozes early Bruce Springsteen one moment, before demonstrating an edgier side more akin to Steve Earle the next, Mays never waivers from his blue collar, good-hearted rock sound. I can’t be the only one who detects hints of Cheap Trick when listening to both “Trust Life” and “Perfectly Wasted,” surely? I would even go as far to suggest that the original “Sentimental Sins” could have easily found a home on a great eighties movie soundtrack, when power ballads such as this were favorable with box office hits. With the knowledge that all thirteen tracks have been given the acoustic treatment, I was incredibly curious to hear just how different they could be.
The original version of “Trust Life” sets an early tone with some dominant drums and guitar licks that complement Matt’s raw vocals perfectly to open the album. Replacing those guitar licks with a low acoustic strum, some keys, and a natural increased emphasis on the vocals in this context, makes this a completely different tune. And lest you think that this is simply a re-hash in an ‘unplugged’ sense, yes, tracks such as “Drive On” and “Station Out Of Range” can certainly be interpreted as such, but delve a little deeper into this album and you may not be prepared for what you are about to hear. With “NYC Girls,” for instance, the up-tempo beat is toned down significantly through a simple drum rhythm and piano, that accompany some multi-vocal harmonies to provide a choir-like rendition much more in the spirit of Sunday morning church. “I think if a song has meaning and is played with heart it can be done in a million different styles, tempos, time signatures and colours,” offers Mays when asked about his willingness to take these original compositions and reconstruct them this way.
Releasing “Ola Volo” prior to the arrival of the new album, Matt not only generated buzz about “Twice,” but showcased immediately the stark differences between both versions. I was not at all prepared for the phenomenal pedal steel (courtesy of the amazing Aaron Goldstein), the simple handclaps, and breezy Hawaiian-inspired ukuleles in lieu of the blistering guitars that typically accompany the chorus of this song. The addition of Goldstein’s haunting and emotionally charged signature sound completely reinvents this song, and adds further dimensions to both “Faint Of Heart” and “Dark Promises” too. Indeed, while the pedal steel alters the context of “Faint Of Heart,” it is the slower, deliberate tone and vocal pace from Mays himself that blends perfectly with the smooth instrumentation to give this a sound synonymous with that of The Everly Brothers; not something that one would associate with Matt Mayes, but an obscure interpretation that works perfectly here.
Naturally I was keen to find out how two of my favorite tracks from the original album were reworked here. “Sentimental Sins” is a powerful track that deals with loneliness and confronting the harsh realities of a lost love, making this stripped down version the perfect vehicle to become lost in the lyrics and outpouring of grief from Mays. Some haunting piano can also add a strong emotional element to a tune, as found in the revised version of “Drunken Angels,” courtesy of Anthony Carone (The Arkells). For me, the original version is wonderful in building the intensity of this song to a point where the bridge quickly becomes a soaring anthem. The repeated delivery of the lines “Tears crystalize on the highway / they sparkle in the sun,” seem a little diluted this time around, although the inclusion of harmonies from Andrew Rodriguez, Kate Dyke and Melissa Payne are perfectly executed within this piano-centric context.
“Twice Upon a Hell of a Time” is a fantastic endeavor by Mays, demonstrating an incredibly diverse side of his typical brand of rock and roll music. While recording an acoustic version here or there is not uncommon these days (most are smaller scale productions of a few songs to satisfy demands from streaming or download services), Matt has taken time out from his hectic touring schedule to not simply go “unplugged,” but to re-work and re-interpret these thirteen songs in a completely different manner. This is a wonderful release that should accompany, not replace, the “Once Upon a Hell of a Time” album that is already in your collection. Highly recommended listening.