Masters of the musically and lyrically unpredictable, offbeat and quirky yet wildly insightful raw indie rock, the Austin based unit Matthew Squires & The Learning Disorders popped out a whopping total of eight critically acclaimed albums between 2013 and 2019. During that prolific era, lead singer/songwriter Squires earned the music site Ovrid’s praise as “the best successor to Austin’s late great Daniel Johnston,” a local legend whose home recorded music (originally on cassette) made him a cult figure in outsider, lo-fi and alt music.
Squires & Co. are a little more polished and less lo-fi than Johnston – but still as hard to pin down sonically, lyrically and conceptually as ever- on their EP The Electric River – their first recording in three years, written during and reflecting attitudes of the pandemic era. Still they tried to make it as pandemic isolationist and DIY as possible, taking over the bottom floor of lead guitarist Gianni Sarmiento’s parent’s house for a weekend. Thematically, we’re treated to everything from the fallout a Squires relationship that wrapped just before Covid (the wistful, poetic, alternately laid back and bustling “Felt Like Your Man” to perhaps the trippiest, most fascinating, edgy and psychedelic tribute to a late comic ever, “The Ballad of Norm Macdonald.”
Almost as peachy keen weird as the stuff the Beatles came up with while experimenting with drugs, this track by an admittedly high Squires is otherworldly magic – and we can only pray Macdonald is getting off on it wherever is spirit is now, too. Squires calls the trying to make sense of a chaotic world pop/rock shuffler “The Life of Trees” probably “one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever written,”: and with its playful “Come on Baby” refrain, sweet vocal harmonies and references to Paul Simon, acid, cosmic investigations, ripe peaches and heavenly harps, he makes it damn easy to agree and sing along loudly and she bounces from thought to thought.
With a title similar to a U2 anthem but only a guitar strum and Squires’ sweet soulful voice driving the song, “Not Sure What I’m Looking For” artfully captures the Zeitgeist of our time: “When the saints come marching in/I hope I recognize their faces/It’s been so damn long since I’ve seen/Beauty in this nation.” The band wraps this splendid little EP with the oddly droning, folk-flavored acoustic guitar and cello dreamscape “Electric River,” which is as weirdly and coolly experimental and Sgt Pepper Beatles and Bowie-ish as any artist and band can get in 2022.