In 1994, a quirky little independent film called Spanking the Monkey was released that took Sundance by storm and made a decent name for itself on the art-house theater circuit. The film seemed like a promising break for many of its young actors, and it certainly helped catapult the career of the film’s lead, Jeremy Davies. However, for one of the movie’s actors at least, it was a less-than-pleasant experience. Matthew Puckett, who played “Nicky” in the movie, left his first love, the guitar, at home during filming, which led to a state of depression and the epiphany that acting wasn’t the direction his heart was leading him. Upon completion of the film, he returned to New York with the clear goal in mind of becoming a musician.
But, unlike other actors-turned-musicians, such as Jason Schwartzman of Phantom Planet, Matthew Puckett seems to have shaken off much of the indie cred he might have carried with his from his film career. In spite of being a homegrown act, with self-produced albums, Puckett’s sound is in more comfortable territory among adult contemporary pop acts than it is among indie rock bands. Although they claim to shoot for the same styles as Cheap Trick and Whiskeytown, 23 finds Puckett sounding like a perfect companion to Vertical Horizon, Evan and Jaron, and John Mayer, with a little sprinkling of Matchbox 20 for flavor.
Not that this is a bad thing. Not by any means. For a D.I.Y. band like this, 23 is a smoothly crafted album, with a warm, rich sound that is easily charming. That it sounds “radio friendly” is not a mark against it. Mostly a collection of love songs that have an acoustic base, highlighted with some light electric guitar work, 23 is not a challenging album with musical experimentation or hip posturing. Rather, it’s a simple album that highlights an inviting band working in a tried and true formula.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. The album opens with the punchy “James”, a song that is a humorous kiss-off to a destructive friend. It’s among the best examples of Puckett’s acoustic-electric blend, and shows a bit of the wit that Puckett brings to his songwriting. The campy vocal changes on “Tell Me” do the same, comically disrupting what would otherwise be a vanilla love song. It’s on “Alright” and “Digital Crowd” that the band shifts gears the most. The former is an energetic tale of adolescent anxiety and self-doubt, while the former is a funky sex-up track, but both break from the mold a bit and add a diversity to the tone of this disc.
But it’s the bevy of straight pop love tracks that might help break Puckett into the mainstream. Perhaps a little too candyfloss for the indie crowd, but “She Comes Around”, “Falling”, “Better Friend”, “Last Year”, and “Run” are all lovely songs featuring sweet vocals, some rich harmonies and an engaging acoustic pop style. Any one could be a contender for the AC charts if Puckett can either gain some promotional support or some quick recognition by VH-1 A&R men. Indie by dint of being D.I.Y., Puckett could be the guilty pleasure of hipsters yearning for a pop love song or two. At least until the mainstream discovers this band makes them famous.