Guitarist/singer Matthew Good hails from Coquitlam, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver more noted for soulless serial killers than for acclaimed rock musicians. Which is somewhat fitting, in that Good never wanted to be a rock star (or so he claims). The aspiring writer nonetheless cut his musical teeth in acoustic folk bands, touring half-empty Canadian bars before forming the Matthew Good Band in Vancouver in 1995. Joining him were Geoff Lloyd (bass), Ian Browne (drums) and Dave Genn (guitar, keyboards). Rich Priske replaced Lloyd in 1998. It’s typical of the music industry’s monumental unfairness that of the two well-known angst-rock bands from the area, heavy-handed chest-pounders Nickelback became the stars.
Last of the Ghetto Astronauts opens fiercely, with a blitz-style attack: “What is life if not a joke/One night she went out for smokes/And they took her apart like a rag doll/In the back of a van” (“Alabama Motel Room”). That, and the awkwardly named “Symbolistic White Walls” are largely responsible for the band’s rapid rise from obscurity. A local radio station picked up on them, and Ghetto Astronauts became the best-selling indie release by a Canadian artist. Immediately, and memorably, all of Good’s trademark elements are in place: his breathy, intense vocal mannerisms (vaguely reminiscent of Live’s Ed Kowalczyk), gritty acerbic lyrics and an unsettling juxtaposition of cynicism and hope. On “Symbolistic White Walls,” Good follows up the long-faced chorus with a heart-swelling coda, “It’s alright now/Take the world and make it yours again” over and over to fade out. It’s as if Kurt Cobain’s musical DNA had somehow gotten tangled up with Bono’s. Otherwise, the debut — which took Good a week to write and cost $7000 Canadian to record — is uneven, passionate melodic rock held together mainly by Good’s remarkable voice and Genn’s distinctive Fender Rhodes wheeze.
Following the five-track Raygun EP, which was released to tide fans over as label issues delaying a second album were ironed out, the mischievously titled Underdogs is a more assured cluster of signposts pointing to territory only dimly suggested by MGB’s past maps. Producer Warne Livesey (Julian Cope, Midnight Oil, the The) is on hand, and the increased assurance is no coincidence. Vigorous melodies and a frantic, trembling energy drive many of the songs. Good experiments with his vocals, hitting spine-tingling falsettos in “The Inescapable Us” and other songs. And while eschewing some rock star trappings, they know radio-amicable when they hear it, and “Everything Is Automatic,” “Indestructible” and “Apparitions” all became Top 5 Canadian hits. “Apparitions” is a hauntingly original plaint on the well-worn theme of brave new alienation. At their best, these songs soar beyond the usual mid-tempo pop-rock they at first appear to be. The uniformity of structure and sonic texture is deceptive — slower intros, building to tense heart-stirring crescendos. “Prime Time Deliverance,” a timeless martial blues collage, is the finest example of this, where everything — mood, melody and theme — works in synch. “Change of Season” also comes close. Underdogs is a good album from a young band finding its feet. (And anyone who can fit the phrase “Grinch’s antler dog” into a song surely has a feel for true underdogs of all stripes.)
With 1999’s Beautiful Midnight (released in the US with an altered track list in 2000), not only did the band find its feet, but those signposts are now pointing to real 3-D landscapes. The intimacy of organ has increasingly given way to wider vistas; the album is at once more layered and spacious. From the moment his suburban high school cheerleaders sweep you up into the acerbic “Giant” (“When you blow out like a dead star/It reminds me how uniform your beautiful is”), you know you’re in the hands of artists hitting their stride. “Hello Time Bomb” recalls teenage years “down at the roller rink” but this wouldn’t be Matt Good if he didn’t remind us that, “Down at the radio shack/We’re turning shit/Into solid gold.” Then a ballad of genuine tenderness almost sans irony, the fragile refrain from “Strange Days” echoing long after its final note has dropped away: “good morning/don’t cop out …” There are few missteps on Beautiful Midnight. The accessible single “Load Me Up” nods respectfully toward both U2 and the Clash without self-consciousness. There is some of Foo Fighters’ ease-without-slickness at work here. Rock can be angst-ridden — angry even — but it need not be nihilistic. The American release engendered controversy (plus a parental advisory sticker) over “A Boy and His Machine Gun,” interpreted as a vindication of the Columbine shooters (“It’s amazing what velocity can do/When human beings are in season”) but was in fact about mental illness.
MGB have had a difficult relationship with the U.S. from the start, no surprise considering their abrasive history with the insular Canadian music scene itself. Good’s acerbity and sarcasm are (famously) not limited to his lyrics; he’s dropped the gloves with Big Sugar, Our Lady Peace, even the Tragically Hip. Their reception south of the border is certainly unaided by such sentiments as “Jenni killed her dad with her car/And now she’s a millionaire/She got beat on mostly for being at home/So mostly she wasn’t there” (“Jenni’s Song”) or “Drugs for the kids!/If the kids are flat” (“Going All the Way”), but authenticity is apparently an imperative for this band, even when such honesty is ugly. It may not be their best song, but “The Future Is X-Rated” sums up one aspect of the MGB manifesto. Among other targets, this vitriolic orgasm of a single lacerates even Good’s own celebrity status. The ominous “Born to Kill” is a cacophonous, sometimes jagged wash of guitars, synth and strings. To cap it off, the sublime “Running for Home” wrings out with wistful harmonies, a chilly piano motif and rainy strings. Few bands can do breathlessness, sorrow and bitterness so naturally. This is a very, very good album.
The limited-edition Loser Anthems collects seven B-sides and rarities, ranging from harder-edged post-grunge to moody first-take acoustic noodling and orchestral snippets. Essential for fans, but everyone should hear the sprawling “Flight Recorder From Viking 7.”
The searing real-life intensity behind The Audio of Being was at least partly responsible for the subsequent implosion of the band itself. The year 2000 was Good’s worst — throat surgery, anxiety episodes and the end of an eight-year relationship all played a part. He wound up in a hotel room at a ski resort for three-and-a-half weeks, writing the bulk of the album. Subsequently recording it in Vancouver with the rest of the band, the sessions were reportedly fraught with tension and conflict, and the Matthew Good Band broke up somewhere around the end of 2001. But not until they had created a flawed but underrated alt-rock milestone. The Audio of Being explicitly parades all the giant-leap-for-mankind strides toward deeper texture, layered density and greater emotional tone achieved since Ghetto Astronauts. And yet it is their darkest work. Weariness is the prevailing emotion, under which dark oily waters of loss and misery roil. Unloved creatures — rats, squirrels, pigs, pigeons — cluster at the self-loathing intros to many of the songs. The children’s choir repeating “where has my head gone?” at the end of “Tripoli” is downright spooky. And there are gorgeous dirges — “Advertising on Police Cars,” “The Rat Who Would Be King” — that feel as truly heartbroken and bereft as any graveside mourner. Paradoxically, just as Good found his unique and true voice, his influences came streaming in: the Pixies, Noam Chomsky, Kurt (Vonnegut, if not Cobain), U2. The album’s last words are, “I’m tired of watching them wind you up to see if you’ll run/Tonight I’m going to go out and have me some fun/I’m tired of walking around here with my hand on my gun/Baby, no pain, no gain” (“Sort of a Protest Song”).
Good has since released a solo single, “Weapon,” and recorded an album.