When PolyGram refused to release his 1983 record Shook
in either the U.S. or England, Iain Matthews became disillusioned and decided to put his career on hold indefinitely. Following a stint as an A&R man for both Island and Windham Hill Records, he returned in 1988 with an album dedicated solely to the songs of Jules Shear. Issued by Windham Hill, Walking a Changing Line
was the label's first vocal release, though it still retained touches of the label's trademark new age sound throughout. The opening track, Fred Simon
's instrumental "Dream Sequence," which is the only non-Shear piece and seems to have been tossed in as the obligatory "Windham Hill" track, won't exactly get fans of either Matthews or Shear too excited about what's ahead, but the songs and performances are good enough to help you set aside whatever biases you may have about the electronic keyboards that permeate the otherwise acoustic sound. Matthews' voice has rarely sounded better, and his choice of songs is inspired, showcasing both the depth and beauty of Shear's writing while staying away from obvious choices. Over half of the compositions were either rare or unknown at the time -- even to many Shear aficionados -- including two songs from a hard-to-find Jules and the Polar Bears EP and two tracks from their then-unreleased Bad for Business
album. One of the previously unheard tunes, the reflective, a cappella "On Squirrel Hill," written about the Pittsburgh suburb where Shear grew up, couldn't be more ideally suited to Matthews' expressive tenor and style, and is not only one of the best moments on the record, but also of his career. Often, dated keyboard sounds and soporific synth preludes do become intrusive, not to mention indulgent, but it's a credit to Matthews' skill as an interpreter and Shear's brilliant songs that things never degenerate into new age mush. Still, with what seems to be the perfect pairing of singer and songwriter, along with demos and live versions -- sans synthesizers -- which surfaced in the succeeding years, one can't help but see Walking a Changing Line
as a missed opportunity by Matthews to create not only a very good album, but a truly great one.