On The Volunteers, his second release as Onelinedrawing, Jonah Matranga wants to give you the full coffeehouse experience: simple, honest songs; do-it-yourself production, a general "I'll just do what comes naturally and see what happens" vibe, singalongs. All that's missing is the between-song banter and storytelling, but Matranga manages to fit that into the liner notes.
Does he succeed? Well, let's just say this: The Volunteers is a rarity, a "home recordings, between an artist and his fans" album with enough quality songwriting and sonic variety to extend its appeal beyond said fans -- without sacrificing the chumminess of the home demo approach. It's also nice that Matranga has avoided the self-important "I've got 80 minutes of disc time to fill with me, me, me!" pitfall that so many of these kinds of projects succumb to. The Volunteers runs only about 40 minutes and has 11 tracks, but all of those tracks are good, and none of them sound the same.
The writing is mostly confessional and entirely personal, with Matranga trying to make better sense of relationships and life in general. After a brief, instrumental opening, "Over It" is a hard-edged breakup song with a great audience-participation chorus that features several generations (!) of the Matranga family. "Superhero" is a quiet meditation on the dubious nature of being a superhero. Not exactly virgin territory for ultrasensitive singer-songwriters, but Matranga makes it work, even giving weight to a phrase like, "Love will find a way". "A Ghost" is about, well, a ghost -- albeit one that wants to be human again, "Because, of course, / A ghost could not affect this world". As if to underscore the tension and longing, Matranga juxtaposes chugging, art-rock verses with an airy, keyboard-heavy chorus.
Although most of The Volunteers is in the mellow mode, Matranga does crank things up on "We Had a Deal", a thinly-veiled political rant with another great chorus. It's big, loud pop-rock of Foo Fighter proportions. From there, the album takes another pleasant left turn with the shuffling, whimsical, and funny "Oh, Boys". This is the kind of humorous, live-favorite ditty that no album of this type should be without. Supposedly written long ago to appease a girlfriend, the song hinges on the line, "Boys keep fuckin' up my car". That line, and especially Matranga's perfect delivery of it, does more for the female point of view than a heap of Liz Phair records.
Maybe not so ironically for this kind of album, the best song on The Volunteers is an accident. "Stay" is a simple yet gorgeous love song that Matranga recorded to a backing track written and performed by another one man band called Of Sinking Ships (see, those liner notes work pretty well). The arpeggio guitar line and moody synth work with Matranga's almost-whispered vocal to wonderful effect -- it's what "repeat" buttons were invented for.
Occasionally, The Volunteers is a bit too precious for its own good. As the liner notes suggest, Matranga seems a bit miffed that he's not the new Dashboard Confessional, and the litany of complaints about the music business on "Livin' Small" is neither original nor sympathy-provoking. And only Morrissey could pull off a line like "You're truly / Through with me" on "Believer".
Basically, though, The Volunteers is an album that looks you square in the face and challenges you to not like it. It's got tunes and inspiration to spare, and its genuine modesty chips away at your resistance. It stays in your CD player because every time you listen to it, you like it a little bit more.