Back in the day, the New Amsterdams was little more than Pryor's voice, an acoustic guitar and the occasional guest instrument. 2000's Never You Mind and 2002's Para Toda Vida were essentially solo records, a way for Pryor to switch gears from fronting the Get Up Kids and exercise the other side of his brain. In later years, Pryor assembled a full band around him but kept the New Amsterdams name, so it's fitting that he'd release Confidence Man under his own name, despite its musical similarities with early New Amsterdams material. And while Confidence Man is quite the accomplishment -- a record that Pryor constructed and played completely himself -- it suffers somewhat from an overabundance of ideas and material that seems to lack focus.
That's not to say there aren't any standout moments, though. "A Totally New Year" is a strong opener, with a simple-yet-effective acoustic guitar part and some light percussion that adds depth and whimsy. The hook created by the electric guitar in the chorus is infectious and Pryor's vocals over that part help it along quite a bit. The banjo employed in "Still, There's a Light" and "On How Our Paths Differ" work to the songs' advantages, and the vocal harmonies are nice. Harmonica initially appears on "When the World Stops Turning" and its utilization complements Pryor's quieter, more somber vocal approach quite well. The title track is one of the best here, an upbeat track with subdued harmonica, more light percussion and a simple piano part that keeps time, with Pryor's vocals here especially strong and, well, confident.
"Only" is Pryor at his most vulnerable, with some intricate guitar plucking and Pryor softly crooning, "After an hour, when I couldn't speak, you tell a story that just makes me weep. It may be my age, I'm just getting weak, my skin's not thick enough for this critique." The minimal instrumentation in "Where Did I Go Wrong" allows Pryor to rule the song with his soaring vocals, especially in the chorus. And in "On How Our Paths Differ," Pryor sings of being out of touch, an all-too frequent occurence with musicians of his age and position: "It may be the fashion, it may be the rage. I guess when I'm laughin', I'm showin' my age."
The biggest detractor concerning Confidence Man is the sheer amount of material here. Fifteen songs is three or four too many for a release of this nature, and the fact that many of the songs share similar structures and tempos doesn't help matters. The songs themselves aren't even that long (most of them are less than two and half minutes, in fact) -- there's just so friggin' many of them it's difficult to maintain interest throughout. I understand that Pryor wanted to write and record a solo album himself and he clearly tried to make it different than from what the New Amsterdams have been doing for the last half decade, but a little more variety (and perhaps, someone else there to tell him when to be happy with well enough) would've done wonders for the overall appeal of this record.
Songs like "Loralai" and "We'll Be Fine" don't really go anywhere, and the ad nauseum repeating of the lyric "Don't worry 'bout us, we'll be" in the latter is particularly grating. The record's final two songs, "Who Do You Think You Are" and "It Ends Here" also don't leave much of an impression, ending Confidence Man on a bittersweet note. Cutting those four songs would've made for a far more focused and cohesive record.
Matt Pryor has given the world a lot of great music over the years, so the occasional dud is acceptable. There's a lot to like about Confidence Man, but perhaps with a little more time and focus it could've turned into something great.