It’s a bit strange seeing keyboardist Matt Johnson rock out as he and his wife Kim Schifino charge through one of their synth-punk numbers live. No matter how excited he gets, staying at the keyboard ties him down. It probably only looks unnatural because we’re so used to rock musicians cavorting freely with more mobile instruments, but seeing both players seated and stationary makes Matt & Kim’s music feel more technological. It’s as though the instruments themselves are larger or more obtrusive in their hands.
The synthesizer typifies Matt & Kim’s music in more ways than one. Since the duo’s self-titled debut, they have made the buzzes, drones and stutters of the synth their own. You occasionally hear a bit of tinkering in the piano setting, but more often you get the tinny electronic roar of the keys played chopstick-style. Matt embraces the limitations and the possibilities of the keyboard, playing static lines that are more about percussion than expression. For her part, Kim smashes up the kit like any good drummer holding up her end of the volume dial in a two-piece. The music is so pumped up that one can imagine the duo liberating themselves from their cumbersome instruments with supermusical energy.
For the most part, it’s the same story on Sidewalks. No one’s going to confuse Matt & Kim for a guitar band or a chamber pop ensemble, even when horns and strings make their infrequent appearances. The quirky, cheerful image of the two, barely contained by their seats and their instruments, remains. The youthful, optimistic punk energy is all here, even if the toothy, bear-anything grin isn’t quite as wide as it used to be. Matt & Kim are just as energetic as ever, but denser arrangments and more fully realized songs make it harder and harder to imagine them overturning their instruments in a fit of passion. That figurative synthesizer just gets bigger and bigger. Before you know it, poor Matt won’t even be able to pull one hand off the keys to jab the air for emphasis.
This album takes up where Grand left off, gradually snowballing layers of production and instrumentation on top off Matt & Kim’s minimalist infrastructure. The bells and whistles of the second album are here joined by violins, trumpets and trombones. Sidewalks confirms the duo in their relatively newfound professionalism, but it leaves less and less about their creative vision to the imagination.
Take “Where You’re Coming From”, a punk ballad filled with double-sided, hit-you-where-you-live images like this one: “Notebooks filled with lines / And the clocks filled with good times / I think I know / I know where you’re coming from.” It opens with plucked violins playing a tick-tock pattern. A few measures in, Kim gets the song started with a drum fill. A bottomless, tolling synth couples with a veritably cascading piano chord to create the perfect ambience for indie solidarity. Before the song is over, Matt & Kim cram in sweeping cymbal hits, elegiac horns and an anthemic bridge. It’s enough to persuade even the most hard-hearted Top 40 subscribers that Matt & Kim do, indeed, know where they are coming from.
Compare that with “Silver Tiles”, the only track here that you can trace back to the duo’s humble beginnings. They released the song as a single in 2006, and they’ve been performing it live ever since. The only thing remotely complicated about the instrumentation is the warbling synth effects that hover in the background. The melody and the rhythm are plain as can be, but the two tear through them like bombastic virtuosos. It’s up to the listener to provide the final charge of enthusiasm. This is classic Matt & Kim: so simple that you very nearly can’t believe either musician is playing on the beat, not to mention singing in key.
As the inclusion of “Silver Tiles” indicates, the duo hasn’t abandoned this kind of fresh-faced vigor. More and more often, though, it’s veiled by polished, synthetic treatments. In one sense, Matt & Kim are coming into their own, adding levels of sophistication to their infectious pop sensibility. But as their personal presence becomes less vivid on record, their musicianship avails itself to starker scrutiny. These two have always been more about energy than depth, more about the bobbing head than the stationary keyboard. Let’s hope it stays that way.