Matt Costa: Songs We Sing

[26 June 2006]

By Jason MacNeil

I never really heard much of Matt Costa until last summer. At the time, the singer was nearing the homestretch of a supporting slot, along with the Animal Liberation Orchestra, for Jack Johnson. Johnson’s laidback, mellow, almost comatose approach made me believe that Costa and ALO were to be in the same vein. And while ALO had more of that vibe, Costa’s music came with a certain amount of bite or punch to it, which made it perhaps the most memorable set of the evening. Now that Costa’s signed to Johnson’s Brushfire Records, his all-important debut album hopefully contains that same oomph that would make the album start swimmingly. And fortunately it does with “Cold December”, a lovely little Paul Simon-ish song that has Costa strumming a couple of the strings from his acoustic guitar before another intricate and pretty electric guitar chimes in. And from there the percussion comes in and Costa is off to the races, galloping along to this infectious tune that takes off about a minute in. To steal a line from Costa’s lyrics in this song, it is indeed subtle and simple, but works extremely well as it changes, downshifts, and then up-shifts.

Costa’s approach touches on several great artists, whether it’s the Beatles or Fleetwood Mac. After the opening “rocker”, Costa reverts to his voice and an acoustic guitar for the pretty and simplistic singer-songwriter lullaby of “Astair” that has less in common with Jack Johnson and more in common with something Ron Sexsmith might attempt. The tune’s tenderness is also helped immensely thanks to Gabrial McNair on harpsichord. Yet as quick as he breezes through that little gem, Costa amps things up again with a catchy, nifty, smart pop nugget entitled “Sweet Thursday” that could have come out of Brendan Benson’s repertoire. The only knock against the number could be some of the guitar solos that tend to revert to something out of the ‘70s. Meanwhile, Costa has a lot of a roots-y vibe going on with the campfire-like sing along on “Sunshine”, right down to the “sha la la la la las” as Costa keeps things the tune chugging with his acoustic guitar.

That isn’t to say that everything that Costa touches turns to gold. “These Arms” is a somber, melancholic down-tempo track that has him sounding a bit like a cross between a dour Coldplay and Ed Harcourt. It looks as if it’s going to break through the surface but never does. And a few moments later, “Sweet Rose” is a clunky retro pop number that sounds as if Costa has been listening to Buddy Holly or Ricky Nelson a few too many times, even down to Holly’s trademark “hiccup” vocal trait which never should be duplicated. Fortunately, what isn’t golden doesn’t happen that often, with “Ballad Of Miss Kate” again picking up off a galloping beat that seems to fall somewhere between Fleetwood Mac and Waylon Jennings. The only thing is that it doesn’t develop a sense of urgency or intensity, just relying on and content with a toe-tapping beat, nothing more and nothing less.

For the most part, though, Costa has an ear for catching the ears of many, particularly on the lovely, terribly melodic title track that he “sings to make the day better”. Taking a bit of influence from Elliott Smith, the song sounds like something the late Smith might have done while riding around on horseback. Perhaps the most interesting song of the record is “Yellow Taxi”, which has a lot of things going on: a strumming acoustic guitar, a jazzy little bit of piano, and some haunting pedal steel for some very pleasing results. And the rousing rockabilly-tinged “Behind the Moon” songs a bit like Tom Petty circa “Yer So Bad”, only with more of a bluesy arrangement weaving its magic around it. The second-to-last number is another head-bobbing, McCartney-esque track, “Oh Dear”, that contains a subtle military backbeat while it ambles along with horns and sweet harmonies.

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