The dawning of the twenties finds Matthew Barber holding steadily at a career crossroads. After struggling to break out during the first few years of the century, he hit gold with 2008’s Ghost Notes, establishing himself as a reliable songwriter whose honest, no-frills crooning gives his music a timeless appeal. Since then, Barber has worked relentlessly, releasing a half-dozen new albums in the last ten years.
In 2016 Barber switched tactics with The Family Album, a collaboration with his sister, who shared vocal duties. 2018’s Phase of the Moon was a harmonically dense but often uneven effort, hampered by unfortunate vocal effects.
Old Tapes, released exclusively on digital, bridges the gap many artists are experiencing between fresh efforts as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent forced government shutdowns. The album is a gift for those who have diligently followed Barber during the first phase of his career, aiming to assuage their patience between LPs with a collection of previously unheard rarities.
Barber stacks a demo of “You And Me,” an understated, moving ballad from Ghost Notes, atop Old Tapes’ tracklist. The torch song’s simple construction is firm proof that conviction and vulnerability have a way of trumping flashy showmanship. None of the demos included come close to topping the cuts that made their respective albums, but the insight they provide into the conception of some of his most fondly remembered work seems worth the slightly edgier production.
This compilation also includes five previously unreleased songs, all written between 2006 and 2013. They vary a bit in style but are consistent in terms of matching Barber’s mannerisms. “Baby Don’t Come” wears its folk-country influences proudly, while the quirky “Australian Birds” is an amusing diversion. But it is “Thy Will” which sounds most like a forgotten treasure; a quiet, poignant tune which would have worked well on any of his releases from that time period, but instead found itself closing out a retrospective collection years later.
Thrown in for good measure are a couple of cover songs. Barber doesn’t have to stray far from his own formula to accommodate Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend,” simply performing the classic with an acoustic guitar. He takes a subdued, melodic approach to fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” smoothing out the tune’s edges without removing Lightfoot’s very recognizable pacing.
Matthew Barber has quietly prevailed as one of the Great White North’s musical treasures for well over a decade. His frank songwriting and pared-down accessibility portray him as an empathetic man; one to whom anyone with a bit of world-weariness could relate. Old Tapes is a worthwhile digression for established fans, but likely not the ideal starting point for the uninitiated.