All right — let’s just get the Rufus Wainwright comparisons out of the way.
Matt Alber and Wainwright do share a certain timbral similarities in their voices — rich and crooning. Both are grounded in classical training — Alber probably moreso than Wainwright — and neither is afraid to employ it. And they’re both gay.
But the differences in the details are more striking than the similarities.
Wainwright makes no bones about his fabulousness. (Check out the minor role he plays in the movie Heights.) His music reflects that flamboyance. Alber, on the other hand, comes across as more rustic, even when his music dives deep into the ethereal.
And as convenient as comparing the two may be, it is ultimately an exercise in inaccuracy. The most important commonality they share is a distinct sound.
It’s that sound which drew me to Alber while browsing the now mostly-gutted Rock Out archive on Gay.com. Amid all the Mellisa Etheridge and Janis Ian wannabes — a good number of them men — Alber came across as someone who sweated the details of his music. And it shows on his Tommy Boy Silver Label debut, Hide Nothing.
"Monarch" opens the album with a long chords, minimal piano and touches of percussion, but as the song progresses, a banjo emerges to give the song a gentle push. That easy pace continues with "The Slow Club" and "Field Trip Buddy", Alber’s luxurious voice comfortably occupying the almost Spartan spaces in the music.
"Beotia" marks a turning point in the album as Alber draws further inward but gets more orchestral. It’s also where he unveils the extreme higher ranges of his voice, a strong counter-tenor that no rock singer can sustain without some serious mojo. Alber, of course, has the advantage of being a former member of the classical vocal ensemble, Chanticleer. (He earned a Grammy award as a member of the group.)
On "Song of Stars", Alber approaches a grandiosity on level with Wainwright’s more indulgent moments, but the dense, blurry background vocals feel a lot more contemporary. If he really wanted to, Alber could probably multitrack himself on a microtonal Gyorgi Ligeti vocal piece to great effect.
As beautiful as Alber’s music can get, Hide Nothing does seem to wander a bit. The first half of the album points in the direction of straight-forward pop, but the last half of the album aims for something more ambitious. He could have recorded two different albums with the same set of songs.
Regardless, Hide Nothing is an impressive debut. If there’s a cultural divide between classical and pop music, Alber isn’t bothered by it, and he’s got a strong enough voice — literally and figuratively — to make each work for the other.