Music

Matt Pond PA: Emblems

Zeth Lundy

Matt Pond Pa

Emblems

Label: Altitude
US Release Date: 2004-05-18
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Matt Pond is a wealth of late night truisms. Emblems, the new release by the band that bears his name -- Matt Pond PA -- lushly documents this fact in Pond's early morning sandpapery croon like a sweater clings to a cold body: "There's no way to the heart better than awkwardly"; "There is danger even in the simple word hello"; "Half of our lives are spent encouraged by embarrassment"; "Don't try to defy the properties of your decisions". Emblems is scattered with such internal revelations, embedded in the band's trademark snug chamber pop.

Pond is like the college student to Joe Pernice's professor, with less internalized fatalism and more emotional impressionism. Born in New Hampshire, Pond spent eight years living in Philadelphia (hence the PA), developing an endearing catalog of folk-mope songs with the bouquet of an unplugged Buffalo Tom. Emblems (the follow-up to 2002's The Nature of Maps) feels like the band's big bid for widespread appeal and acceptance; it's baffling that these songs aren't all over the radio. The songs all work towards a cohesive statement of existential heartache, using recurring motifs of rivers, blood, lights that illuminate the darkness, and nature. The album maintains a consistent vibe of humming neon lights in the early morning darkness, but unfortunately not every song works individually. Matt Pond PA's formula -- a search for emotional rescue via Pond's reedy rasp, propulsive drumbeats, and Eve Miller's rich cello arrangements -- is amiable at the album's outset, but it wears thin mid-way through.

It all starts out strong enough. "KC" purrs with a lucid hypnotism, Pond's one-note guitar strum leading the way for the band to open the floodgates. Pond's voice aches with the scent of whiskey and cigarettes, sending the song's oblique imagery into some kind of resonance: "The truth is behind the hotel / The body's underneath the maple tree / The leaves turned red when you killed me". The jangle of co-mingling acoustics and electrics provides familiar, sweet support for the melody in "Lily Two", the album's most engaging, straight-ahead track: "At the top of your voice there is no doing wrong I swear / Lily you be just who you are". "Closest" is a voluptuous slice of angelic pop, an intricate, densely produced song with layers upon layers of sound. "The requests have all been effected," Pond discerns over the insistent, shimmering drive, "With distortion and a hiss that's not detected". "Closest" sounds destined for inclusion on your local AC station's afternoon drive; more than any other song on the album, it's arranged, mixed, mastered, and smothered with gloss. This track not only has potential as a hit, but it could also isolate some of the band's more organically inclined fan base. "New Hampshire" arrives during Emblems' middle lull; despite some occasional affecting lines ("I'm so determined / To lay in lakes and see my sisters / I will hit my brother and hold my mother"), at five minutes long, the tune's kinda yawn-inducing. "The Butcher" and "Summer (Butcher Two)" place too much emphasis on lazy strumming and neglect the songs' potential for strong melodies. The weaker songs sound really good, but they're rendered uninteresting by the repetitions that Emblems perpetuates.

"While there's nothing to confess," Pond admits in "New Hampshire", "Please pay attention." Not such a difficult request to obey when Emblems effortlessly sucks you into its world and illuminates your own. If only that request didn't feel like a mere suggestion by the album's end.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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