For perhaps as long as I've known about Friend Roulette since I was introduced to them from ARMS, the experimental chamber pop sextet have mentioned a desire to record and release a record of ballads. Considering it was sometime hard to round up their multitude of members, playing their songs as ballads was a tactic the band would often use if they wanted to play out but either drastically change the energy or compensate for a lack of members. They would mention the ballad record occasionally and the some time would pass and nothing came of it. Also many of their records both full length and EP would contain a ballad or two so fans were never particularly suffering from a lack of them. When Friend Roulette announced and actually released said ballad album earlier this year, I was a bit in shock. What with guitarist/singer Matthew Flory Meade starting a new side project and the members' various other commitments, I had never expected the record to take shape or at least not for it to be the next release after their rather downtempo Grow Younger EP. In fact, I essentially assumed Grow Younger was the ballad record even though "I Guess" and album ender "Kitty Song" are very high energy.
The Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1 is a tribute of sorts to their friend Matt Sheffer who is a fellow musician and is ultimately responsible for the Friend Roulette we have today. He was an ardent supporter of their music as well as a sounding bound and helped write "Viva Zyprexa", one of Friend Roulette's first songs, as well as part of "Kitty Song". Though not particularly a fan of the ballad, Friend Roulette have a knack for writing them in a way that has always resonated with me from as far back as "Or Belin" off their self-titled EP and the Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1 is no different.
Album opener "You're A Fox" is a touching love song where Sheffer uses grander and grander metaphors to express his love all the while still elevating the intended and appealing to their strong nature. Where "Joan" is a tribute of sorts to the Golden Age Hollywood actress/dancer Joan Leslie and details her struggle getting the sort of roles she wanted, she's referred to with the sort of absentmindedness you might have for a mundane piece of trivia.
In listening to the Songbook, it occurred to me just how much Friend Roulette gained from Sheffer especially when I heard the newly recorded version of "Viva Zyprexa", as the sense of otherness that Sheffer and Matthew Flory Meade touch on essentially forms the backbone of much of Friend Roulette's output. While "Bacon and Raisins", a tale of being trapped in a would-be fight to the death with a home-invading spider, is not only the most cohesive Friend Roulette have allowed their narratives to be, it contains winsome melodic flourishes that the band often build songs on before drawing them in sharper, more abstract directions.
It's not hard to see why songwriters Julia Tepper and Matthew Flory Meade were drawn to Sheffer's songs, though he's capable of writing straightforward songs, Sheffer is also capable of both non-linear narratives as well as touches of the surreal is his songwriting like "Snow Pea" with its shifting perspectives. The Songbook essentially gives a glimpse into the evolution of the sextet's sound. Stripped back, you can focus on the innovative lyricism and Friend Roulette's arrangements are subtle and sparse enough that they never threaten to obscure the lyrics. Instead they're held with a reverence that's befitting of someone so important to the band's core identity.
Friend Roulette's The Matt Sheffer Songbook Vol. 1 is out now via Pretty Purgatory.