Matt Monta has been playing music in Columbus for a long time -- he used to play at the old High Street BW3 if your memory goes that far back. For the last several years he’s been playing with Righteous Buck and the Skull Scorchers and fronting The Smoking Guns, and as a result I’ve had a tendency to lump him in with the outlaw country scene that puts on the Johnny Cash tribute every year. Those guys play great music, but it’s not exactly a fountain of introspection and self-doubt.

  On his new solo disc, Monta seems to be staging a breakout. He’s keeping the full volume band, a little bit of the bravado and a couple of trucks and trains, but he’s broadening his scope. He isn’t necessarily ditching the outlaw vibe, but he’s pushing it, building on it -- trying to make it smarter.
  He’s assembled a terrific group to back him up. Jamie Molisee is one of the finest guitarists around, and his lead work is at times vicious and always in good taste. He trades off well with Monta’s harmonica runs. The rhythm section of Matt Paetsch on bass guitar and Bryan Kossman on drums is solid. David Butler’s organ is very good -- channels Al Kooper at times -- although he might want to consider giving the Leslie effect a rest every so often.
  Turning to the songs, Monta’s new path isn’t apparent at the beginning. To be honest, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the first two songs. The first track, “The Last Gunslinger,” addresses Monta’s relationship with the cinema cowboy of his youth, a Billy the Kid whose final wish is to die with a pistol in his hand. Monta revisits the character as an adult, but he doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion -- if anything he’s ambivalent. On the second track, “Can I Sing You a Song,” I can’t tell if Monta is being earnest or sardonic. He’s singing about a piano -- maybe he’s singing to a piano?
  Whatever. After this hesitant start, Monta proceeds to fire off six straight tracks of some of the best music I’ve heard from a Columbus artist. “Magic in an Empty Room” opens with the lyric “[s]he’s not worried that you can afford her, about the wires buzzing with orders...she’s just worried she might die alone.” This ain’t Willie, Waylon and the Boys folks -- this isn’t mindless shit about good women or your useless boyfriend. This is hard, sophisticated music and if you’re even mildly literate it should kick your ass.
  “Deep ‘Ol Well” is both fierce and somber. Monta pulls off lyrics like “Jesus never loved me, but God is on my side; I walk the razor’s edge, where air and earth collide,” but he needs to recall the outlaw persona to do it. You have to suspend belief a little to accept a character with a “fifth of whiskey left to drink and sweatier than hell,” or else you’ll end up envisioning the degenerate hero of Warren Zevon’s “Studebaker.” Monta’s vocal lets you do it.
  “Two Kids Living in America” is a song about surviving your own cynicism -- how do two lovers hold it together when they are being battered by their country’s corruption and their own deep flaws? It doesn’t really offer answers, but at least you get to commiserate.
  Fueled by saloon piano, the narrator in “Take it All Back” is trying to get back into his lady’s good graces. He’s taking responsibility for his actions, but still feels a little under-appreciated -- it might take some give on both sides to keep to keep this one together.
  “I Wish I Held you Longer” is an honest song of failure and regret. It would be tough to steal the blues from this tune though -- whatever went down is between the singer and himself.
  The title track, “Where You Find Love,” seems more commentary than story. For lack of a better word, it notices people traveling to whatever thing guards their sanity. I don’t see it as finding love necessarily-- this could be a song for those who have love already -- but more about finding what helps you hide from loneliness.
  The spell of the album is briefly broken by the ninth track, “Gypsy Girl,” a nicely arranged pointless cliche. Give that one a miss. Monta regroups, though, and offers the guilty fun of “Going Now” followed by the benediction of “May Your Loves Never Weep.”
  It’s a great effort. If I appear to gush I apologize -- it’s a big deal to me to hear real songcraft from a Columbus act. That it’s well performed and decently arranged is icing on the cake. It’s refreshing to hear music that actually means something.
  Monta’s CD release party will be on Saturday, April 11, at Space Bar, supported by Tim Ptitchard and the Boxcar Suite.


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