On Lightning, not too much has changed for Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino since 2010’s Sidewalks, which itself wasn’t much different from 2009’s Grand. This isn’t to say that the keyboards and drums duo are repeating themselves, but their development is incremental rather than revolutionary. As usual, there are 10 tracks and the album lasts right around 30 minutes. Also as usual, Matt’s melodies are bright and sticky, the kind that lodge in your head after only a couple of listens. The album begins with cheery piano chords and Matt’s falsetto “ooOOoo”‘s before Kim comes in with a laid-back hip-hop beat and Matt layers in synth bass and synth strings. “Let’s Go” is catchy and danceable and just grimy enough to feel off the cuff. The chorus is simply Matt shouting “Let’s go let’s go let’s go let’s go!” followed by those “ooo”‘s again. It’s simple and fun and exactly what you’d expect from the duo.
The second track, “Now”, starts as a typical uptempo Matt and Kim song as well, with Kim’s galloping drumbeat and a speedy repeating synth line. The song takes a surprising left turn about 40 seconds in, though, after Matt sings “So let’s cut this whole building down.” The song turns to a sample of Matt saying “Now, now, now-now-now-now”, followed by a screaming, descending synth note and a dubstep drop. At least, it’s Matt and Kim’s take on a dubstep drop, and it comes complete with thumping, low, low end bass, Kim pounding away at about a quarter of the original tempo, and gang vocals shouting “Now” on the off-beats. The song even includes a bit where the beat drops out entirely, leaving Matt’s synth chords by themselves. Then Kim comes back in and slowly accelerates to the original tempo before hitting the dubstep drop one more time. As an experiment, “Now” is pretty successful. It combines a style of music outside of the duo’s usual comfort zone and does it well. But “Now” is mostly works as an experiment; it isn’t the best song on the album by a long shot.
That distinction goes to a pair of tracks in the middle of the album. “Not That Bad” rides along on bed of martial drums and simple piano plinks. When the synth brass section comes in and the tempo slows down for the chorus, it feels like something big is coming. Then Matt really manages to sell his woe-is-me refrain, “You called me hopeless / But I swear, it’s not that bad / And you said it’s worthless / But I swear, it’s not that bad” over those slow, oppressive brass chords. Kim’s double-time drumbeat in the song’s coda is like the cherry on top of a catchy, three-minute song confection. Of course, the song felt more significant the first couple of times I listened to it and it sounded like Matt was saying “homeless” instead of “hopeless”, but this isn’t the kind of band to tackle topical issues.
The duo follows this slow-and-loud success with the fast-and-loud success of “Overexposed”, which starts with a quick-moving wobbly right-hand synth line and is joined by Kim’s simultaneous four on the floor kickdrum and hi-hat. When the vocals come in, that quick-moving synth line is replaced by an even faster, finger-twisting keyboard part that continues through the eminently singable pre-chorus “Like a picture / I was overexposed / Be-lieve me / I saw you with my eyes closed” as the drums mostly drop out. The chorus, which is once again just a variation on Matt singing various notes while saying “Oh”, is doubled in the keyboard as Kim’s drums shift from syncopated to back on the beat. As an added subtle touch, a bass guitar rumbles along in the background at certain points in the song as well. Besides that devilishly difficult-sounding keyboard line, the techniques at work in “Overexposed” are relatively simple. But Matt and Kim combine them so skillfully and at such velocity here that the results are thrilling.
The back half of Lightning is solid with one notable exception. “I Said” returns to the EDM textures of “Now”, albeit at a slower tempo. But Matt’s fuzzy bass synth tones dominate the song even more than his repetitive chorus of “I said I said I said it’s real / I said I said I said take the wheel / But you said you said you said no deal.” The disco bass and drumbeat of “Tonight” makes the song the most authentically danceable on the album, and maybe the most fun. The chorus of “I Wonder” may be the catchiest on an album full of earworms. Album closer “Ten Dollars I Found” is Lightning‘s only real ballad, one that follows in the tradition of Sidewalks standout “Northeast.” The twist here is that the song is a duet with both members singing. It’s nice to hear Kim’s voice, as it allows Matt to sing harmonies in a lower, less nasal-sounding register than usual and gives the song a fuller vocal presence.
The notable exception I mentioned earlier comes with “Much Too Late”, the album’s penultimate track. It’s the punkiest song on the album and it starts like any typical Matt and Kim rocker, at least until it gets to the chorus. “You think I’m some little phony / Thing is you don’t fucking know me!” Matt shouts at some unseen target in a fit of teen angst. This juvenile rant might not seem out of place if the band were in their early 20s and making their first or second album, or if they were true punk rockers who made their living on perpetual angst and anger. But this is their fourth album and they make catchy, dancey power-pop songs. “Much Too Late” is a rant that seems to come out of nowhere and doesn’t fit in with anything else on this record.
Aside from that, though, this is good stuff. Matt and Kim have stretched themselves just enough to keep things interesting for their listeners without ditching the style that makes them appealing in the first place. Lightning may not find the duo reaching new musical heights, but it will satisfy their fanbase. And who knows? Maybe their forays into 2010’s dance music styles will win them some new fans as well.
// Notes from the Road
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