[23 January 2008]
With his second release on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records label, singer-songwriter Matt Costa steps away from the guitar-and-voice template of his label-owning mentor with mixed results. On the one hand, the disc’s fussy arrangements sap the immediacy from much of his new material. On the other, the eclectic kitchen sink production is a lot of fun to hear.
Costa’s back story is probably familiar to anyone who has heard his name. Seven years ago he was a Huntington, California skate rat whose career came crashing to an untimely end when he shattered a leg during a skating accident at age 18. During a long recuperation, he took up guitar and writing songs. It’s probably not a stretch to say that developing his writing during a period of recovery is what shaped his pensive, thoughtful songwriting style. He also developed a love for older British folk and pop music around this time, and a 1960s feel has always been evident in his sound.
After releasing an EP, Costa signed with Johnson and in 2006 released Songs We Sang, a CD that earned praise for both its songwriting and quirky influences. The songs on Unfamiliar Faces push Costa further into oldies revival land. That’s especially evident on the bouncy rocker “The Emergency”, where Costa and producer Tom Dumont (of No Doubt) recreate a 1960s-styled mix, placing the vocal in the right channel and the drums and (“Magical Mystery Tour”-styled) horns all the way over to the left. It’s cute, but the song would have been more emotionally involving had it been pounded out with more simplicity.
The lead single and opening track from Unfamiliar Faces is “Mr. Pitiful” (not the Otis Redding song). The song’s boppy beat and choppy piano recall forgotten popster Emmitt Rhodes, but Costa keeps the track from being a mere imitation with his edgy vocals. There’s clearly an attempt here to musically reference various 1960s artists, and Costa probably would get a kick out of people noticing the nods to the Beatles (in the background vocals), Bob Dylan (in the lyric), and the Kinks (in the “Sunny Afternoon” musical interlude). Because the song is catchy, though, it transcends its influences and comes off as quirky indie pop.
That’s not quite the case with all the songs here, though. While some songs, like the romantic ode “Lilac” are immediately ear-grabbing, others are diffuse and recede from the listener like an audio mirage. That’s not due to lack of talent, but, strangely, an abundance of it. Several songs offer a succession of musical hooks that are structured so oddly that you have a hard time getting a grip.
A good example of this is the title track, which is a pretty convincing paean to romantic jealousy. The song starts with one melody then seems to go immediately into another before landing on the chorus. All three parts are undeniably gorgeous, but hard to grasp because they’re sorted out with an uneven bar structure. Back in the era that Costa so much admires, producers would help overly ambitious songwriters map out their tunes (for example, George Martin restructured the Beatles’ “She Loves You” so that it started with the chorus). Costa might have benefited from such help, but producer Dumont probably had his hands full mapping out all the horns and other oddball touches.
One song that works despite a somewhat loose structure is “Vienna”, a jazzy minimalist ballad that is reminiscent of both David Gray and Paul Weller’s (underrated) work with his post-Jam band the Style Council. Here, Costa is able to set a haunting mood with little more than a drum machine and an electric guitar. Whatever its lyrical content (it seems more a tribute to a woman than a city), its references to cathedral bells, blossoms, and summer evoke a mood without even needing to spell out a specific storyline. There’s also a soulful (and soul-influenced) intensity here that’s new to Costa’s work and, perhaps, points to a direction he could pursue.
“Heart of Stone” (not the Rolling Stones song—or the Taylor Dayne one either, for that matter), is a straight-ahead folk number that uses water imagery as a metaphor for a shipwrecked love affair. “Miss Magnolia” concludes the album on a note of pure silliness, with a trilling ukulele buried in an Americana arrangement that (probably unconsciously) recalls the old Mungo Jerry hit “In the Summertime”.
There’s no question Costa has progressed since his first EP. But as he ventures on his musical journey through the past, he might want to look at the albums of the 1960s icons he so admires and think about if their “progress” improved their music or diluted it.