Iain Matthews – If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes
Vinyl Lovers (Vinyl)
By Paul Rigby
Fairport Convention was a legendary folk band and many of the band’s former members released a wide variety of work as solo artists or as part of other collectives. This album is arguably the best of the bunch. Formerly Iain MacDonald – he would change his name in 1968 to avoid confusion with the King Crimson band member of the same name – Iain Matthews was principally a Fairport vocalist. Rather than diving straight into the machinations of this solo work, it is worthwhile dwelling upon his earlier Fairport days because it tells you were the If You Saw… album came from, why it exists and why it sounds the way it does.
Speaking about his early days with Fairport Convention, Iain Matthews revealed that, “We were young and unambitious. It was something that we were doing because it sounded good and it felt good. It was the right combination of people, we were doing something a little bit different and we wanted people to hear it. We had a great manager (Joe Boyd) who produced us. He suggested material to us and had access to a lot of great material because, in the early days, we weren’t prolific writers.
“I wasn’t savvy to that recording process at the time. Like everyone else, I would get the call that we were going to record again and I’d go along to the studio. You have to understand that my role in Fairport, at that time, was really…I won’t say it was subservient but it bordered on that. I was more a tool than a guiding light. I was a vocalist in the band. I didn’t take material into the band although I liked the same kind of material that we did. A lot of the material that we did, at that time, was put into keys that were good for the guitar players. That speaks volumes as to who lead the band and where the emphasis was. I didn’t think twice about, I didn’t know any better.”
Matthews always knew that there was more to him than that. He understood that he, as a creative artist, could go further. That he could create and set-up his own musical vision. A realisation he had even before he joined Fairport Convention;
“I remember, in my late teens when I left school and when I was working, I used to listen to the radio all the time, sing along to stuff and then began to think, as I listened, ‘I’m better than he is.’ So I decided that I should try to join a local band. Before I knew it I was in Fairport and I was being paid a wage.”
So you can understand why Matthews went solo, he was infused with an inner confidence which evolved before he even entered the band environment. When the break finally occurred, it was not a surprise or a problem;
“It was a mutual agreement when I left Fairport, they didn’t really want me in the band anymore and I wasn’t particularly interested in playing traditional music. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I just knew that was what I didn’t want to do. It took me a while to figure it out. Then I realised that the thing I loved the most where the American singer-songwriters. People like Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Dylan and James Taylor. I wanted to do something with that. I also liked country music so I decided that I was going to combine the two and that I was going to basically have a folk-rock band, interpret American singer-songwriters but also with unique material.”
He began with the album, Matthews’ Southern Comfort, released in 1970, an album from a songwriter’s collective that, ironically, had their biggest success with the chart-topping Joni Mitchell cover, Woodstock.
Featuring Fairport men, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson and folk legend Dolly Collins, Matthews’ Southern Comfort (confusingly, a Matthews band of the same name would evolve after this album) revealed a considered air that echoed the Fairport past while gazing into the country rock future, allying itself to late-period Byrds.
In fact, Matthews songwriting and arrangements appear to be influenced by Byrd-man, Roger McGuinn.
The year 1971 was a hell of a year for music. Get the load of this lot from this classic year – just a sample, mind you: Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Carole King’s Tapestry, Caravan’s In The Land Of Grey and Pink, Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Doors’ L.A. Woman, the Carpenters debut, Paul McCartney’s Ram, Johnny Cash’s Man In Black, The Who’s Who’s Next, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Isaac Haye’s Shaft and Black Moses, John Lennon’s Imagine, T.Rex Electric Warrior, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, Faces’ Nod Is A Good As a Wink…, Bonnie Raitt’s debut, Kevin Ayes’ Whatevershebringswesing, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory… But even with this incredible level of competition, If You Saw… was a stand-out. This album is that good.
Featuring ex-Fairport members, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, vocalist Doris Troy and jazzman Keith Tippett amongst others, If You Saw… was a maturing revelation from 1971, exposing a real delicacy of touch. You can hear how Matthews was evolving, developing his fine tenor voice. His almost apologetic backing harmonies hover, feather light, over his lead vocal while well mastered acoustic instrumentation is interspersed with ease, in the gaps. Matthews’ vocal delivery is never over-powering. An uplifting album of great beauty, If You Saw… took Matthews’ song-writing and production vision to a new height that has the ability to astound the listener.
Stand-out track: Never Ending
A heart breaking track – and that’s without reading the lyric. Simple, at first hearing, this will strain the midrange capabilities of your speakers. Will it successfully pick out Sandy Denny’s delicate harmonium playing? The subtle double-tracked Matthews’ acoustic guitar or the jazz inflected complications of Tippet’s piano?
Stand-out track: Morgan The Pirate
This track will test the instrumental separation of your system. For example, the acoustic guitar, acoustic 12-string and the acoustic lead guitar can easily trip over each other on a muddled hi-fi. This track demands clarity and transparency too.
If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes – A Recorded History
1971 vinyl Vertigo 9286 924
2003 CD Inbetweens 702
2005 CD Universal Distribution 9573
2007 CD Water Music Records 00032597
2009 CD Universal Distribution 94121
2011 Vinyl Vinyl Lovers 901196