Following up on hints of a promising career is never easy. Matt Suggs has always insipred a little bit of hope for something better. His previous band, Butterglory, were a darn good indie-rock band who imploded just as they were starting to hit their stride. After the end of Butterglory, he chose not to make music for a few years. He felt inspired and recorded some demos and was convinced to turn them into a solo debut. His solo album, Golden Days Before They End appeared in 2000, to mixed success. It was a slight disappointment, simply because it was quite obvious that Suggs could do better. It didn't seem to be anything more than nice songs with merely OK arrangements, and they didn't serve his true talents quite well--and, when added to the fact that the vocals were weak, it was a disappointing record from someone who certainly could do better. Luckily, he has beaten the sophomore slump with an ace trump. Amigo Row is not only Suggs' personal best, it's a wonderful record, period.
Perhaps Suggs' smartest move was to actually work with a band. It's a pretty bold step, recording all of the instruments yourself, and it's a move that requires a certain level of talent. A lot of people who do so never seem to admit that one instrument is invariably their weakest, and while it looks good on paper to say "I did it all myself," your weakest link will always be apparent--especially if it's drums. There's something to be said about the dynamics of a band, too; unless you have access to expensive studios or are indeed a musical prodigy, then you can't begin to compare to an actual group. Amigo Row is the formal debut of Thee Higher Burning Fire, and the pairing could not be better. Suggs' previous work suffered for the lack of outside ideas and collaboration.
Though Amigo Row most definitly fits the 'alt.country' tag, it's not really a country record. If anything, Amigo Row's blood bleeds blues, (such as on "Jonathan Montgomery") even if it's tainted with a good dash of country. Really, though, it's all about the songs; Suggs is a very fine singer-songwriter, and his band fills out his ideas quite nicely. I'm really fond of all the piano and organ; it complements his smooth yet rough singing voice, and it adds a nice little dimension on songs such as on "Clementine" and "Eyes of a King." Even though Suggs and company shy away from rocking out, it's not because they can't do it; witness the driving pulse of "Calm Down." In fact, I'm a little disappointed that they didn't do more rock-n-roll; "Calm Down" shows that they have the ability to perform some pretty hot Southern Rock.
Suggs has certainly made a record to be proud of, and even if it's been a few years since his last record, he sounds as if he's been working hard ever since 1997. He's got an excellent band accompanying him, and he's got an excellent record label supporting him, and here's hoping it doesn't take him another three years to make his next record. Amigo Row is one of Merge's best releases--both this year and, well, ever. Welcome back, Mr. Suggs, and thanks for making a great record.