Oh, competence! Sweet, dull, well-meaning competence — you are Matt Pond’s greatest virtue and you are the noose around his neck. Look what you have made of this man with a fine melodic ear and an admirable work ethic: you have rendered him catatonic. His pleasant, well-executed milquetoaste yup-folk can barely summon the energy to penetrate the stereo’s speakers. Competence, your flawlessly inoffensive siren song has turned a human into a bran muffin.
Matt Pond PA will drive you to the airport. It will loan you 20 bucks when you’re down on your luck. It will let you borrow its books and never bug you about returning them. But when you’ve got a good bottle of whiskey and a long Friday night stretching out in front of you, it’s not the band you call, unless you’re looking for a designated driver.
Which is weird, because Pond’s new record The Dark Leaves is clearly supposed to be a cigarettes-and-Jack-Daniels kind of thing. From the eerily distorted pastoral scene on the cover to the darker lyrical content and the high school-level poetry in the press kit (in order to make this album, Pond apparently “hacked off a piece of his own fate,” whatever that means), it seems this album is supposed to be Pond’s harrowing, dark-night-of-the-soul, Nick Drake moment. Instead, it’s pretty much more of the same lush, tour-ready indie rock tunes that MPPA has been trafficking since they actually lived in PA.
That’s not bad thing, exactly — despite the almost toxic level of snark in the preceding paragraphs, I think Pond does what he does fairly well, and his work is just as good as or better than that of more famous analogues like Pete Yorn, Sondre Lerche, and Badly Drawn Boy. He can construct a catchy mid-tempo shuffle better than most, and his simple pop melodies have an easy momentum buoying them. At his best he blends melancholy folk-rock with infectious, polished pop, as in the catchy opener “Starting”. “Specks” is a bright and hopeful love song with a melody so warm and sweet and pleasant that you want to take it home to meet your parents. There’s good stuff buried here and there among the dross, and more than one of these melodies might get stuck in your head.
But even the songs I’ve just praised feel somehow blank and flat. Pond’s strength is also his weakness. One one hand, he clings stubbornly to his radio-ready songwriting chops, unable to lay down his skills for even a moment to let things bleed and seethe. On the other, he’s too melancholic and disaffected to embrace the transcendent possibilities of empty pop. “Sparrows” is driven by a jangling chord progression and shambolic tambourine, a chiming guitar solo, a memorably simple sing-along chorus, and a lot of sha-la-las. It’s as unassuming as a song can get, and it’s the most appealing thing on the record.
The real problem is that The Dark Leaves is a half-measure. Everything on it is somewhere in between. After all these albums, Pond still can’t decide what he wants to be — hell, the band still has “PA” in its name despite moving to Brooklyn. He ought to drop the love-sick poses or lose the studio sheen. Strip naked or cinch up his tie. Weep or exult, rather than plod tunefully through mid-tempo expressions of indecision. Anything else is unworthy of our time.