A Bigger Pond
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon isn’t the only musician that has spent some time in a cabin. In 2010, Matt Pond sequestered himself up in Bearsville, New York, to produce a record called The Dark Leaves that wound up spawning so much material in the form of outtakes that several EPs came out of the session. If it was a productive period for Pond, it’s clear that he now wants to wade into much bigger waters and leave the solitude of cabin life in the woods behind for something ... more. His latest album, The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand, is his first for a major label. It also sees him tossing out the “Matt Pond PA” band moniker in an effort to get out there as a bona-fide solo artist. Obviously not quite content to have moved about 100,000 units of his entire backcatalogue, Pond now finds himself thrust into a much more major spotlight, with the expectation that the rewards will be greater. It’s just too bad that The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand is middling at best, with a clutch of some truly great material and some just so-so stuff. Clearly, the pressure of working outside of solitude sort of got the better of Pond.
That’s not to say that the album is a complete dud, as it actually starts out fairly startling strong. Opener “Let Me Live” is a rousing folksy number that could have been ripped out of the Fleetwood Mac songbook. It’s not a bad song, though it does get kind of undone a little bit by some cheesy keyboard washes and some repetitive use of “whoa-whoa”’s – though that observation only serves to underpin the fact that The Lives Insides the Lines in Your Hand is a pop record, one that’s shooting for the stars and the pocketbook of the masses. Even better, though, is the follow-up track, “Love to Get Used”, which is the lead-off single on the album. It’s easy to see why – it’s clearly the best thing to be found here. With a jaunty guitar line and saccharine female vocals in the chorus, this might just be a defining moment for Pond as a popsmith. It’s just one of those songs that will get stuck in your head, and one wishes that Pond had more songs like this in his arsenal. The acoustic guitar meets stark piano lines of “Starlet” also has its share of endearment, and could be a possible candidate for a follow-up single. But therein lies a bit of a problem: You listen to this record, and start thinking like an accountant. And from there, the rest of the album has its share of peaks and valleys.
“When the Moon Brings the Silver” is a heart-on-one’s-sleeve emo confessional with stabby strings, and it feels a bit lackluster and cloying. Here, the pop sensibilities get the best of Pond and he delivers something that feels a bit clichéd. And, what’s more, there are parts of The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand where Pond comes off as sounding a bit like Don Henley in his “The Boys of Summer” era, particularly on “Go Where the Leaves Go”. The effect feels a bit watered down. And “Hole in My Heart”, while it boasts a hooky refrain, is leveled by a repetitive drum machine and the occasional flash of heavy metal guitars. “Human Beings”, with its folksy banjo flourishes, might just be the least memorable thing to be placed on the album. The title track, too, comes across as half-baked Henley, though it does pick up to deliver a big, boisterous chorus. Final song “Strafford” is a nice acoustic-y ballad, but it feels more like a coda to the album than a song that lingers.
Overall, The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand is pleasant. It works as background music, akin to something you might hear on the radio of a passing car. However, being on a big label breeds big responsibility and the album is rife with attempts to have a bevy of singles that will jingle at the cash register, but that’s when the songs register at all. That might be a sell-out accusation, but I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make money off of their passion. However, the record tends to lack passion in place of polish, and there’s a certain lack of soul to the proceedings, save for “Love to Get Used”. The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand feels like an attempt to write for a bigger audience, to the effect of essentially watering down a lot of the material so that it fits in the comfort zone of the lowest common denominator. That might not be a bad thing, per se, if you’re in the mood for it and don’t like to be challenged in the least, but “Love to Get Used” does prove that Pond has some serious songwriting chops, and it’s a bit sad to see that nothing else on the record really compares to it. All in all, I suppose that Pond might be better served retreating to that cabin in the bush once more and delivering something that throbs with compassion. As it stands, The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand is a simple album, and sometimes simple pleasures can be a good thing, but when the results come across as sometimes having a spark and then fizzling out for large swaths, it’s hard to say what Pond was trying to accomplish here other than coast on a bigger production budget and let that carry the day. Ultimately, The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand is certainly well varnished; the songwriting could have been the thing to use a bit more spit and shine.
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// Notes from the Road
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