The Throne of Saint James aka Matthew Hencke has been releasing an abundance of music recently. In June he released Unconditional Surrender and in July he released Sharp Appetite.
The two releases total in at twenty-two songs. After listening to the music, releasing a double album would have made just as much sense. The fact is that most of the songs are indistinguishable (besides the lyrics) upon the first couple of listens because they all rely on almost the same exact structure. All of Hencke’s songs are nothing else but his vocals and his acoustic guitar. The thing that really makes the songs all sound alike besides this is that he uses the same strumming pattern at almost the same exact speed on all of them. On top of that Hencke isn’t exactly using technically impressive chords changes. Hencke relies exclusively on almost all minor and major chords, which only adds to the fact that the albums feel like one continuous song.
Let me get a couple things out of the way. Even though the songs are simplistic Hencke does have some talent as a songwriter and a lyricist. It’s obvious he put some time into the lyrics and if anything is going to get you through the album sequentially it is the storytelling.
Hencke as a singer doesn’t exactly have golden pipes but he has a number of inspired performances along the way. There aren’t any distinguishing features to his voice that really stick out which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it.
Hencke mentioned that what he was “thinking about during the writing & recording process were GNR's "Lies" and Leonard Cohen's "Songs of Love and Hate." You really couldn’t have two more disparate influences from that. You can sometimes hear tinges of those two artists but not too much. Take for instance the first track on Unconditional Surrender entitled “Plan A” which seems like it could be a distant cousin to the song “One In A Million.”
There is no reason to continue to talk about the music unless I actually was to transcribe the chord changes. The changes that happen are within the lyrical content. A good majority of the songs on Unconditional Surrender deal with a romantic relationship or at least some sort of relationship with one other person.
“Desperate Man” seems to revolve around taking a vagabond into his home while “Moment of Truth” brings up refracted memories of a past relationship.For what the songs lack in infectious melodies and memorable choruses they make up for with poetic phrases, ambiguous language and notable narrative.
The songwriting and storytelling on Sharp Appetite is just as good as Unconditional Surrender. There is one difference on three of the songs. A female voice makes herself known (whom I’m guessing is either is his wife of sister since her name is Lez Hencke) and is nice addition to the songs. After so many songs with the same elements any variation was appreciated.
The lyrics on Sharp Appetite are varied and ultimately save the songs from sounding too monotonous. Sharp Appetite also contains Hencke’s best vocal performances and catchiest songs. “The Beast” is arguably the highlight of the two albums. Either way it is one of the best songs he has written.
I have divided thoughts about these albums. Let’s get one thing straight. You can take the best singer/songwriter on the planet (say a Sufjan Stevens or Sam Beam) and if all he did for an entire album was to strum a guitar the same way and sing, my mind would undoubtedly start wandering. I’d be bored - I need variation and I think most people do too.
It is baffling that Hencke didn’t at least attempt guitar picking or do something like add a lot of reverb to one song to create some variation. I encourage Hencke to step out of his comfort zone and try at the very least different strumming patterns, which people will recognize.
The good news is that I think he already realizes this. I had a listen to his latest release Leo and he is at least introducing new elements into the mixes. Overall, Hencke has talent especially as a lyricist. He would not only benefit from a diverse palette of sounds but also from the way they are delivered.
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