Review: Matthew Barber, “No Singing Or Dancing”

Matthew Barber - No Singing or Dancing

Go ahead and ask me to name-drop who I believe to be one of the busiest people in the Canadian music industry right now, and there would be no extra time needed for deliberation – Torontonian Matthew Barber would hands-down by my response.  And while I anticipate hearing cries of “Really?” and “No way, he’s been quiet,” trust me – you’ll exhaust yourself just perusing the list of his accomplishments over the last ‘almost-two-and-a-half-years’ of this pandemic. 

I am still sensing a few head shakes out there – that you may be ready to question my choice – in which case, let me offer a quick recap of some of the exciting projects that has occupied this JUNO-nominated artist’s time lately.  Remember the arrival of the newly formed duo Clever Hopes last year?  You know, the pairing of Andrew Shaver and Eva Foote – yeah, Matthew both produced and performed on “Artefact,” their stunning debut album.  How about the recent run of singles from actor/musician Ian Lake – and subsequent debut album, “What It Is,” – yup, production duties here are also credited to Matthew.  And, lest we forget, Matthew was behind the studio console to produce “Adjustments,” the very recent (and highly anticipated) album release from Noah Reid – yes, THAT Noah Reid, star of stage, screen, and Schitt’s Creek fame. I could name-drop a few more projects, but you see my reasoning now, right?  This is quite an impressive resume throughout the pandemic.  Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard – he became a father during this time too.

But wait, there’s more!  With multiple albums and recordings under his own belt, we knew that Matthew could not stay behind the console or in the background for long, especially after being pretty radio-silent since “Phase of the Moon,” his last album release from back in 2018. Just a few months ago, Matthew surprised us all with the pandemic-themed “Viral,” a stunning single that found the artist experimenting with his own sound by dabbling in some vintage soul. Shortly after, he would surprise once more with “Every Time You Cry,” a melodic power-pop number about the different ways of processing grief, and most recently, “Green Tea,” which, among other sentiments, acknowledges the heroism of front-line workers during these times. Matthew also announced the arrival of his latest EP, “No Singing Or Dancing,” which drops today, and one we are very excited to share.

For Barber, with the arrival of the pandemic came the harsh reality of seeing the most joyous of public human activities specifically and explicitly banned hit an emotional note amidst the cacophony of sudden mandatory closures and lockdowns. Indeed, the EP title itself was inspired by the words of a city directive back in the spring of 2020 that caught his eye whilst scrolling through an endless stream of announcements about unprecedented new social norms that a few months earlier seemed unimaginable. “No athletes competing / No stadium seating / No Raptors repeating / In the city tonight / The city tonight / Just neighbourhood walking / And telephone talking / No rolling or rocking / In the city tonight / The city tonight.”  This title track touches on these new norms and sudden life changes, but the upbeat nature and tonality of the choruses serve more as a rallying cry for a return to normal, to rekindle the good life we fondly remember and once again yearn to embrace.

Five of these six new songs were all very quickly crafted during the early stages of the pandemic, and very much reflect his musical and lyrical processing of this period of rapid change for both himself personally, and for the greater world at large.  While confident with the foundations of his new material, Matthew (guitars/vocals) soon accepted that outside help was needed to build his musical structures, turning to good friend James McKenty (Greg Keelor, Ginger St. James) to record and co-produce the album, joined by Ian McKeown (bass), Steve O’Connor (keys), and Jeff Halischuck (drums) at McKenty’s Peterborough studio in late 2021.

Matthew Barber

The recent single, “Green Tea,” was written very quickly in just one backyard sitting on a warm spring day in May 2020.  “I’m one of the lucky ones / Strumming my guitar in the backyard sun / But out on the front lines / They’ve been having some hard times / So with gratitude and grace / We shelter in this place / And think of all the ways / Green tea / You’ve been good company / Your healing leaves / Have set me free.” “The song’s mellow feel reflects a world that has slowed down from the frenetic bustle of public life,” Barber shares. “A world in which the changes in the garden that come with the changes in seasons become more apparent and take on more significance. In this world, one can more easily meditate on gratitude – both for heroic acts and simple pleasures – and that’s what this song tries to convey.”

“Sing Me To Sleep” proves not only to be another stellar cut from this collection, but is the one track that has roots tracing back prior to the arrival of the pandemic.  This composition started out in life several years ago when Matthew and his good friend (and Outside Music label-mate) Justin Rutledge collaborated on some songs for a theatrical production of The Graduate. And while this co-write may have started out as an instrumental number, lyrics were later added by Barber. “Sing me to sleep / What’s left to say, end of the day / Comfort me deep / You’ve got a way of making the pain feel ok.”  Note the soft acoustic guitar cues, Ian’s deliberate bass rings, and Jeff’s shimmering cymbal brushes – the echo of Simon and Garfunkel’s influence arguably remain at the core of this tune.  

“No Singing Or Dancing” signals a much welcome return to center-stage for Matthew Barber.  Sure, we love what he continues to do behind the scenes for many of his peers and friends, but his own creativity, and these six new songs specifically, deserve a ton of airplay – six songs that combine to touch on themes of technology, political polarization, emotional support, sacrifice, solidarity, and even epistemology. “Every time you cry / I wind up wondering why / The well behind my eyes is dry / Do I have to dig deeper and try to get inside / The feelings you never hide / And deal with my foolish pride?”  In doing so, Matthew takes our own collective fears and doubts of seeking survival in a pandemic, and offers a shot of hope and some light to help navigate our way to that much needed sense of normalcy. “But one day we’ll rejoice in the bars with the booze / And dance to the bands that are playing our tunes / Get lost in the crowd maybe find someone new / I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re gonna do / I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re gonna do.

“No Singing Or Dancing” is available today, via Outside Music.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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