A trip to the mall usually results in a new pair of shoes or maybe an Orange Julius and a pretzel. For singer/songwriter Maurice Mattei, a stroll through the Kenwood Towne Centre resulted in his new album, appropriately titled Kenwood Towne Center.
“I was walking though there one day in the winter and what I saw initially was Crabtree & Evelyn,” Mattei says over lunch at Sitwell’s in Clifton. “I’m not that familiar with the store, but I really liked the name. It sounded to me like an Elvis Costello song. And I thought, ‘That would be kind of neat, to write a song called ‘Crabtree & Evelyn.’ ”
Almost immediately, Mattei was struck with the larger concept — to build an entire album out of songs that are titled after the names of stores at the Kenwood Towne Centre. Mattei wrote “Crabtree & Evelyn” the very next day.
“I hadn’t expected to, it was just an idea,” says Mattei, who has been pegged in more than one review over his 15-plus year music career as Cincinnati’s quirky answer to Bob Dylan. “I would go back occasionally, and as I walked around I would pick out stores that I thought the names would work as songs. The concept of it really is an homage to (Magnetic Fields’) Stephin Merritt. He’s one of my favorite contemporary songwriters, and this is kind of a tribute to the kind of thing he might find interesting and funny. The trick is, when you do something like this, to keep them songs. If you didn’t know that was a store, the song should still work as a song.”
The mall project also incorporates Mattei’s other vocation as a respected graphic designer. A visit to his Web site (www.mmattei.com/kenwood) reveals his lyrics to the KTC songs accompanied by his artfully composed and executed photography.
While Mattei has one other concept piece in his 13-album catalog — his musical spoof/song cycle Western Skies — he maintains that he isn’t necessarily a fan of the form.
And there’s a fair case to be made that, although Kenwood Towne Center has a conceptual idea at its core, it’s a far cry from a themed and threaded concept album.
“I’m a little hesitant about concept albums, generally speaking, because I think they’re goofy,” Mattei says. “I’m really kind of a traditionalist as far as Rock and Pop music goes, and I don’t care for the concept of Rock operas. In this form, I feel OK with it.”
The other wrinkle in the Kenwood Towne Center project is the fact that the material in its current guitar-and-vocals demo form will be available only for a limited time. The songs can be streamed from the Web site, and Mattei is giving away copies of the hard disc at shows (including Friday’s CD release event at The Comet), but at a certain point the album will cease to exist.
“It takes so long to do a recording, and I’m so impatient with that kind of thing,” Mattei says. “I just want to get the music out when I feel it’s complete, in case I keel over tomorrow. At least it’s out there in one form or another.”
Mattei is currently translating the Kenwood Towne Center demos into fuller versions with his band, The Tempers (bassist Bill Grapes, drummer Mike Grimm, Blues harpist Rick Howell), which will comprise a separate and largely different album.
“That will be available as a real, massproduced CD,” Mattei says. “The guy who’s recording it, Bob Craig, who also did the acoustic one, has been real generous with his time. It’s just a question of getting everything right and worrying about the mixes. It really is irritating to me (laughs). I’m used to going in, having the acoustic and vocal live, no overdubs, and once you have the initial mix down you record and do some EQ stuff later.
“I usually do an album in about four sessions. This takes a while longer. And you want to try not to lose the feel of the material as you’re working on it.”
When Mattei and the Tempers release the Kenwood Towne Center songs next year, the new disc will bear a different title and some of the songs from the demo will be replaced by others (including “Crabtree & Evelyn,” which is not on KTC) that were more conducive to full band arrangements. One such track is the ill-fated “Abercrombie & Fitch.”
“It was just too big,” Mattei says. “The song itself is not a bad song, but there’s no way you can get around the branding of the store in a song.”
Clearly the songs on Kenwood Towne Center aren’t literally about the stores in question (some of which went out of business before Mattei began recording) but rather were inspired by imagery that occurred to him in the writing phase. The concept lent itself naturally to his typical songwriting methodology.
“I usually start with the title and work down,” Mattei says. “For me, the title is the hook. There’s a lot implied in titles. You can get the feel of the song, whether it’s a minor or major chord or uptempo. When I saw Hollister, which is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, I thought, ‘That’s a great name for a guy who’s a bum or a petty thief.’ And then there was Marble Slab. I saw it on the list of stores on the directory and thought that was a cool title, but I had no idea what it was.”
MAURICE MATTEI and The Tempers, joined by Lovely Crash, play a free CD release show Friday at The Comet. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.